“Our collective silence only compounds the problem.” ~Chief Craig Steckler (Retired), Fremont PD
What is Happening?
New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill made one of the most difficult statements of his career earlier this month, announcing the suicides of two veteran NYPD officers. Deputy Chief Steven J. Silks, 62, just weeks from his mandatory retirement, and Detective Joseph Calabrese 58, a high-ranking union official, died within twenty-four hours of one another. Commissioner O’Neill called police suicides a “mental health crisis” and urged despondent officers to seek help, before any more were lost to suicide.
Less than ten days later, O’Neill’s “crisis” diagnosis was vindicated, when an as-of-yet unnamed Staten Island officer, only 29, killed himself outside the precinct where he worked. O’Neill, forced to the metaphorical podium once more, reiterated his earlier sentiment.
“The NYPD and the law enforcement profession as a whole…must take action,” he wrote on Twitter. “This absolutely cannot be allowed to continue.” Police suicide is far from a New York City issue. The nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P. reports 92 law enforcement suicides nationwide this year alone, and 167 in 2018. Every year, police deaths by suicide outnumber deaths in the line of duty.
Why is This Happening?
Several factors associated with the profession are responsible for this trend. Many police officers struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of the dangerous scenarios they encounter every day. On the job, they make split-second decisions with peoples’ lives in the balance. Frequently, they do so sleep deprived and working irregular hours.
With such a high-stress job, police officers desperately need a support network. Yet they often have trouble finding one – at home or at work. In the home, police marriages end in divorce much more often than civilian ones because of the irregular hours and emotional withdrawal to traumatic experiences on the job. A staggering statistic from Law Enforcement Today found that only a quarter of married of officers will still be married to the same spouse by the end of their career.
And at the precinct, officers often hide their struggles to avoid personal and professional repercussions. They fear that opening up about their mental issues will invite taunting by their colleagues; many police departments suffer from a tough guy, don’t-admit-weakness culture. They fear reporting any emotional troubles will give their superiors reason to doubt their ability, and they will be passed over for promotion or even let go.
“Our refusal to speak openly about the issue perpetuates the stigma many officers hold…that depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are signs of weakness and failure, not cries for help.” ~ Chief Steckler
With nowhere and no one to turn to, many cops take solace in the bottle. Police officers are at a higher risk of substance abuse than the general population. They’ll drink too much to cope with the stress, which further compounds the marital problems covered earlier, which further compounds their stress in a vicious, booze-smelling cycle.
And when it all finally becomes too much, officers are at a much higher risk of successfully committing suicide because of their service pistols. Suicide attempts involving firearms are more likely to succeed than any other method, and research has (albeit inconclusively) suggested the mere presence of a gun in the house actually increases the risk of suicide, precisely because the person knows they are more likely to succeed. For too many officers, their own guns are a bigger threat to them than those wielded by any criminal on the street. Their pistol – the tool by which they protect our lives – sadly become the means by which they end theirs.
These ingredients – trauma, substance abuse, domestic woes, access to firearms – form a tragic cocktail, one which far too many officers drink every year. It doesn’t have to be this way. It should not be this way.
What Can Departments Do?
A police department acknowledges a responsibility to do everything to protect officers from being harmed in the line of duty. It is imperative that they also commit to protecting their officers from suicide. The department understands its obligation to make their officers safe as possible when they are dealing with active shooters. But as we have seen, suicide claims the lives of far more officers. They must treat this crisis as a legitimate safety issue by police management.
In recent years, a handful of police departments have recognized this and moved to rectify the issue. The Montreal Police Department launched the “Together For Life” program in the early 2000s. The program introduced a phone hotline for officers in need and training on suicide risk factors and assisting depressed colleagues. Twelve years after the program’s institution, the department’s suicide rate plummeted by nearly 80%.
But not every police department has the budget for such a comprehensive program. And it’s hard to fault police chiefs for wanting to devote scarce resources to solving cases or upgrading equipment. If this is the case, the department may turn to the union, a local health agency, or the clergy. These outside organizations can help provide access to counseling the department cannot afford to. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Interactive Screening Program, an online questionnaire that screens suicide risk and connects officers to independent counseling services, recently introduced by the Fargo Police Department, is a great example of a cheaper service smaller departments can use to assist their officers.
“Accepting help is never a sign of weakness – in fact, it is a sign of great strength.” ~Commissioner O’Neill
Departments must also foster a work environment in which seeking help is not perceived as a weakness. They must pledge that officers who do reach out will not suffer professional consequences. They should look into establishing firearm safekeeping programs, in which officers can temporarily surrender their service pistol. Again, this must incur no professional consequence.
What Can You Personally Do?
If you are a police officer struggling with depression and anxiety, you are not alone. You can be helped. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 is free, confidential, and available 24/7. If you would rather speak with a service that understands the difficulties unique to the law enforcement profession, text BLUE to 741741. Counselors at the Crisis Text Line are specifically trained to deal with crises common to police officers. If you are experiencing a crisis, DO NOT isolate yourself.
Less immediate resources include Blue H.E.L.P.’s database of books and articles, the Badge of Life website and its educational material, and the International Association of Police Chief’s Suicide Prevention webpage. These resources will provide you with healthy coping mechanisms and resilience development techniques.
If a fellow officer expresses suicidal thoughts to you, DO NOT belittle them or treat it as a joke. Direct them to these resources and connect them to their other friends and family.
You put your lives on the line every day to serve and protect your communities. In times like these, you have earned the right to put your own life first. Asking for help is NOT a sign of personal failure, it is not cowardly. It will likely be one of the best things you do for yourself your entire life.