In the last two months, four police officers with the New York City Police Department have died from firearm-related suicides, bringing the total this year to nine, already twice the NYPD’s annual average. Overall, more police officers die from suicide in the United States than are killed in the line of duty.
According to one estimate, 90 percent of police suicides involve guns, which poses a unique challenge: What do you do when someone who is mandated to carry a gun feels suicidal? “There are stressors of the job complicated by stressors you have in your own personal life and compounded by the fact you have a firearm on your hip,” NYPD Chief Terence Monahan recently told WNYC.
To mitigate suicide in the civilian population, experts have recommended tools like red flag laws, which authorize judges to temporarily disarm people who might pose a threat to themselves or others. But removing guns from police officers can negatively impact their career. After Chris Prochut, a police commander in Illinois who survived his suicide attempt, sought treatment at a psychiatric hospital, he was stripped of his rank and pension, which further exacerbated his despair. NYPD Officer Peter Konovitch, who survived the September 11 attacks, recently told The New York Post that officers are often too afraid to report mental health issues because it could land them on what’s dubbed the “rubber gun squad,” a desk job where guns are prohibited. “It’s a dead end. You’re not a cop anymore.”
To help parse New York’s problem and evaluate possible solutions, The Trace asked John Violanti, a research professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a retired New York State trooper, about how to prevent self-harm among a group of people who are almost always armed.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
Why are police officers more susceptible to mental health crises?
When you think about all the stuff police officers see in their 20 years as an officer — the mass murders, the trauma, the abused kids, the dead bodies — these are things [the general public] will never see. They are things we don’t want to see. But [police] see it, and they have to digest it, and they have to deal with it. Sometimes the accumulation of these events take a toll on their psyche, and they can’t cope anymore. And they turn to things like alcohol and suicide.
The suicide rate among police is higher than the general population. We know from the most recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that if you’re a cop, you have a 54 percent greater chance of being a victim of suicide than if you’re a general United States worker. That is a scary statistic.
A lot of officers deal with the same trauma, but they don’t deal with it in the same way. Why do some mock others for getting help?
I think it’s this police culture that we work in that always emphasizes that one must always be in control, one must always be strong no matter what happens. Sometimes they make jokes of it — “If you have a problem maybe you shouldn’t be here” — but it’s really not a laughing matter at all. It makes people think twice before reporting any sort of mental problem, because they know that they’re going to be looked at in a different way. If they feel supervisors don’t trust them anymore, or they’re going to lose a promotion, it’s going to certainly hurt their career.
There’s a lack of training in mental health in police departments, especially at the academy level. Officers are trained in how to shoot, how to drive a car, how to defend themselves, and in all the laws. But when it comes to mental health, there’s not much.
For officers who want to come forward and get help, the repercussions can be detrimental. Are there other alternatives than the “rubber gun squad”?
If this happened to someone in the general population whose occupation did not require a firearm, any available means of suicide would be taken away from them. But here you have a police officer for whom a deadly weapon is the tool of their profession. By taking that gun away from them, you are in essence stripping them of their identity. The officer feels shame, and sometimes they’re talked about and laughed about.
The viewpoint of the police administration is, “If I don’t take this weapon away, this individual is going to kill themselves and I’m going to be liable.” The psychologist’s viewpoint is, “If you take this weapon away, you’re taking this man’s identity away, and you’re probably going to make them more depressed and more likely to commit suicide.”
There are alternatives I’ve been thinking about, and I haven’t seen tried anywhere. In the military, when soldiers leave the base, they have to check in their weapons, and when they check in their weapons, they can’t take them home. So essentially, you’re removing a possible method of suicide.
Second, most police officers, if they’re going to die by suicide, they’re going to do it away from the station. So maybe it’s a good idea that officers who are identified as having difficulties be allowed to keep their weapon while they’re on duty, but not take that weapon home. Most officers who die by suicide use their service firearm. That’s a symbolic thing: “I’m getting even with the job,” essentially.
Third, assign at-risk officers a partner, and that partner is going to be that officer’s support system. That support system is what people who are thinking about suicide really need. They need someone to bounce things off of.
What can police commissioners and high-ranking officers do to help combat this problem?
I firmly believe that if the administration supports officers more in a tangible way, and not just by word of mouth, a lot of this will go away. One of the basic problems between the officer on the street and administration is that they don’t trust each other. It’s not just the NYPD, this is a universal thing. There’s a culture division between the street officer and the executive level. As a result, officers don’t trust the administration to support them. Some departments have dealt with this by having police officers come in and talk about what’s happening on the street, what they need on the street, and help make decisions for officers on the street. That seems to work well and increases the trust between the organization and the cop.
Once there’s a trust established, and I can go to my supervisor or my sergeant or my lieutenant or my captain and say, “Hey, I’ve got a problem and I want some help,” and that’s not going to end up with me getting ostracized in some way, then we’re going to be much better off.
How has this issue impacted your career?
During my 23 years as a New York State trooper, I saw a lot of things. My fellow comrades were dying at an early age, getting in trouble with alcohol. I had two partners who died by suicide. Cops get into a situation like that and they feel helpless: “Maybe I should have known, maybe I should have been able to stop it.” But people are good at hiding things sometimes. If only we’d had training in suicide awareness, if only we knew more about things like depression, maybe we would have spotted this earlier.
I’ve heard recently of departments starting to assign therapists to the various stations who will visit, perhaps once a month. If anybody has any problems they can come talk to the therapist. This is a good idea for an outreach program, much better than waiting for an officer to [go see a therapist] who probably never will.
Today what I see happening is an increase in courses on mental health and an increase in wellness programs in police departments all over the country. This is a good sign. I think [people are starting to understand] that that officer in the streets is a very valuable resource, and losing one officer can really hurt the morale of the whole department.