4 Officer Suicides in 3 Weeks: N.Y.P.D. Struggles to Dispel Mental Health Stigma

First, there was the deputy chief facing mandatory retirement as his 63rd birthday approached. The next day, it was a veteran homicide detective who had talked dozens of people out of killing themselves.

A week later, it was a young patrolman handling domestic violence cases and going through a divorce. Then on Wednesday, a veteran officer was found dead at his home on Long Island.

All four officers took their own lives this month with their service pistols, highlighting an uncomfortable reality: More police officers commit suicide every year in New York City than are killed in the line of duty, and the department’s efforts to persuade despondent officers to seek counseling have had only limited success.

Since 2014, an average of five New York City police officers have taken their own lives each year, according to the Police Department. Six have died by suicide in the last six months alone.

Researchers say police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than people in other jobs, a consequence of the intense stress of their work, peer pressure to keep their emotions hidden, and easy access to firearms.

The recent cluster of deaths prompted Commissioner James P. O’Neill to declare a mental-health crisis and to direct officers to seek help.

“There is no shame in seeking assistance from the many resources available both inside and outside the department,” Mr. O’Neill said in a message to his 36,000 officers on June 14. “Accepting help is never a sign of weakness — in fact, it’s a sign of great strength.”

City police officers have a range of options to get confidential help, from department chaplains and peer-support groups to phone and text message hotlines.

But for many officers, emotional vulnerability is incompatible with their desire to be seen as heroes, according to researchers who study police stress. Many officers who need counseling swallow their feelings, fearing that their careers or their rapport with other officers will suffer if they seek counseling.

“Officers are very hesitant to ask for help,” said John Violanti, an epidemiologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo who is a former New York State trooper. “The culture sort of mandates that you don’t have problems, that you’re a RoboCop and you’re not affected by emotion. And we all know that’s not possible if you’re human.”

No matter what assurances the Police Department — the “job” in police parlance — makes in overtures to troubled officers, many of them believe that a stigma remains, and that seeking psychological help will lead to a swift change in one’s position.

“The job will tell you they’re here to look out for you, but the No. 1 rule is the job is there to protect the job,” William P. Ryan, a retired detective, said. “You go in there and say you’re depressed or whatever, they modify you. They take your guns.”

Mr. Violanti said the bottled-up stress of life and police work, combined with constant access to guns, makes it easy for officers to act on a suicidal impulse. Officers have as much as a 54 percent higher risk of suicide than other workers, he said, based on mortality data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Support programs have proven to avert suicides by letting officers know they have other options, researchers said.

“Most people who are suicidal don’t want to die, but they might not see any alternatives,” said Lieutenant Richard I. Mack, who volunteers with Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance, a nonprofit anti-suicide program created in 1996 after 26 officers killed themselves in a two-year span.

Still, getting depressed officers to ask for help remains the biggest challenge for commanders. Edwin C. Roessler Jr., the police chief in Fairfax County, Va., said he has tried leading by example, telling officers in training about his decision to see a therapist in 2010.

Initially the response was “just blank faces,” Chief Roessler said, but later officers would often contact him and say things like, “‘Hey chief, it’s about time we did something about this.’”

Three of the recent suicides — Deputy Chief Steven J. Silks, 62, of Queens; Detective Joseph G. Calabrese, 57, of Brooklyn; and Officer Michael Caddy, 29, of Staten Island — were dealing with the sort of problems that experts say contribute to suicide.

The fourth officer, who had not been identified on Thursday morning, appeared to have served 24 years in the New York Police Department, officials said. He appeared to have shot himself in his home in Hicksville, N.Y.

The Police Department said it would conduct “psychological autopsies” to examine the officers’ lives for clues about what led them to their decisions.

Last August, Mr. O’Neill appointed a mental health and wellness coordinator to promote healthy habits that police work can interfere with, like exercising regularly, eating and sleeping well, and socializing with family and friends.

“This isn’t soft, touchy-feely stuff either,” the coordinator, Detective Jeff Thompson, said. “Because what happens if you don’t? You go home and you start isolating yourself, and then you start thinking that the world is a terrible place and there’s nothing good.”

Still, the hard-shell attitudes of many officers are difficult to change. Karen Solomon, the founder of Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that collects data on police suicides, said she received a disturbing call from a city police officer just days after Mr. O’Neill’s message.

“He said, ‘I was talking to a bunch of guys about this, and they were making fun of the officers and calling them weak and saying that we’re better off without them,’” Ms. Solomon said.

One hurdle to addressing police suicide is a lack of information. Comprehensive data is nonexistent. Police departments are not required to report suicides to a national body, and some jurisdictions record them as natural deaths to protect police families from embarrassment or prevent the families from losing death benefits.

“We need to know more about the extent and nature of the problem and what is driving this,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, an organization that works to improve the professionalism of policing. “In 2019, we do not know the answer to that.”

Still, the national data that is available indicates that more law enforcement officers have died by suicide in the last three and a half years than have been killed carrying out their duties.

Officers leaving a wake for Chief Silks at a Queens funeral home on June 10.CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times

Blue H.E.L.P has estimated that at least 478 officers have committed suicide since January 2016, while the F.B.I. has reported that at least 368 officers were killed during a crime or an on-the-job accident during that period. So far this year, at least 91 officers committed suicide and at least 47 died in the line of duty.

A number of law enforcement leaders see a need to dismantle the taboo against seeking treatment for mental health that they believe is pushing officers in their ranks toward self-inflicted deaths.

At a suicide symposium in April at Police Headquarters in New York City, more than 300 police chiefs, clinicians, consultants and researchers met to discuss what they have quietly struggled with for decades.

Suicides raise difficult questions for police leaders, like how to classify them in the hierarchy of police deaths, whether to attend the funerals, and when and how to take a troubled officer’s gun.

Some police commanders, like Deputy Chief Joseph J. Reznick in New York, said they slept better after confiscating an officer’s gun. But psychologists warned that forcing officers to give up their weapons — symbols of the job that forms their identity — can drive them further into despair. In addition, suicidal officers can find other methods and weapons, they said.

Detective Thompson, the Police Department’s mental health coordinator, said an officer’s gun is taken away in New York only as part of a thoughtful process aimed at saving a life. It is a temporary measure, he said, and does not spell the end of their careers.

“We don’t just take the person’s gun away and then just kick them out into the abyss,” he said.

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