When two veteran NYPD cops took their own lives earlier this month, shaking the department, Commissioner James P. O’Neill implored officers who were boxed in by stress or overloaded by pressure to seek help.
In a significant way, Mr. O’Neill’s entreaties to his fellow officers were symbolic of a sea change taking place within law enforcement, including the NYPD.
“We cannot hide from this discussion, we should not, and we will not pretend that these things don’t happen, and then pray they don’t happen again,” he said at Police Headquarters on June 6, the day after Deputy Chief Steven J. Silks, 62, the Executive Officer of Patrol Borough Queens North, took his life. “To the cops here today, I need you to know help is available to you, help is here. You are never alone.”
‘Take Care of Yourself’
On June 14, the day a third member of the service shot and killed himself, the Commissioner renewed his pleas.
“This is a mental-health crisis,” Mr. O’Neill posted on his Twitter feed. “And the NYPD & the law enforcement profession as a whole absolutely must take action.”
His post followed by hours the suicide of a 29-year-old officer near his 121st Precinct stationhouse on Staten Island.
The post cited a message from the Commissioner on the NYPD’s webpage, listing contact information for counseling and mental-health resources. “We must take care of each other. We must address this issue—now—because it will not go away on its own,” it said.
On June 5, Chief Silks, 62, who had served in commands in The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, as well as at the NYPD Academy and the department’s Firearms and Tactics Section, among other posts during his 39-year career, shot himself.
Commissioner O’Neill called Chief Silks “one of the most-capable and one of the most-dependable cops this job has ever seen.”
He was presiding over the department’s first-ever Pride Month Community Safety Briefing, an event at which he apologized for police actions at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago. It was also the day that a second longtime member of the service, Brooklyn South Detective First Grade Joseph Calabrese, a widely respected 57-year-old homicide investigator, took his life. His death, by his own hand near a Brooklyn beach, prompted Mr. O’Neill to urge fellow officers to reach out.
“Your jobs require that you spend much of your day helping others; before you can take of others, first you must take care of yourself. And always remember your colleagues and the entire NYPD are here to help,” he said.
He encouraged officers to talk to friends or coworkers, or to contact counselors at the department’s Employees Assistance Unit. He also suggested reaching out to the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance, a volunteer police-support organization. And he encouraged officers to make a confidential referral to EAU counselors if they were concerned about a fellow officer.
The same day, Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan posted a video on Twitter encouraging officers to seek help if they felt overwhelmed.
'Won't Ruin Your Career'
“Trust me when I say getting some help will not prevent you from having a successful career,” he said. “Actually, getting help will lessen the burden you may be carrying. You are never alone.”
If the stress of being a cop does not lessen, police culture has changed enough for an officer to reach out for help—and, crucially, to find it, said John Violanti, a Research Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Buffalo and a retired New York State Trooper.
“I attribute that to the next generation of leadership, the younger leaders who have a better view of mental health than the old-time chief who just says ‘you can’t take the job? Just quit,' " he said, adding that he was encouraged by Commissioner O’Neill’s efforts, including holding a symposium last month that gathered more than researchers, experts and law-enforcement personnel to address suicide among cops.
Dr. Violanti said it’s imperative that mental-health resources within departments assure confidentiality, given that concern about any associated stigma “is still very strong” within police culture.
“There’s a fear that if I come forward with my mental-health problem, I’ll be stigmatized, I won’t be trusted anymore, and that I may even end up being taken off the street. That’s still pretty strong,” he said.
'Tide Definitely Changed'
John Petrullo, the director of city-based Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance and a former NYPD officer, also said the climate has changed sufficiently that cops are more willing to seek and accept help than when he was a cop.
“Now it’s OK,” he said. “The tide has definitely changed. As long as they know it’s safe and confidential.” Cops, he said, are reaching out earlier, before the stress and strain accumulate to a breaking point.
POPPA’s core comprises about 200 active or retired NYPD officers, all of them volunteers, who undertook a 12-day training regimen before they began taking calls from their fellow officers. In collaboration with the NYPD, the volunteers also engage in constant outreach at commands throughout the city. The peer-to-peer aspect is an asset that breeds trust and confidence, such that officers seeking assistance will sometimes agree to meet face to face to discuss their issues, Mr. Petrullo said.
“Some cops just need to call and vent” after having had a particularly tough day on the job, he said.
Cops at Higher Risk
Dr. Violanti's research shows that, by virtue of their job, police officers have a 54-percent higher risk of being a victim of suicide compared to the general population. “I’m not surprised by that,” said Dr. Violanti, who retired from the State Police in 1990 after nearly a quarter-century as a Trooper and Detective with the Bureau of Criminal Investigations. “I understand the frustration, the feelings of isolation, the lack of support that officers get from the population, sometimes from the organization.”
In the last 10 years, 49 NYPD officers have taken their lives, including four last year, and four so far this year, according to department officials quoted by the New York Times.
Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts nonprofit that addresses mental-health problems and issues, including the risk of suicide, within law-enforcement ranks, says it has documented 91 suicides by police officers nationwide so far this year, a number on pace to more than double last year’s 167 suicides.
Dr. Violanti, though, said it is difficult to accurately measure the number of police officer suicides for a few reasons, including that the Federal Centers for Disease Control’s statistics regarding occupational deaths incorporate reports from just 25 states.
“Nobody knows the true number,” he said. “I’ve seen everything from 100 a year to 400 a year...There’s no system of having departments report suicides, so a lot of it is hidden; it doesn’t want to be reported.”
On July 9, the day before his 63rd birthday, Chief Silks would have retired.
He would have seemed the ideal candidate for retirement. Mr. O’Neill, who called Chief Silks a friend, said he was an outdoorsman, a marathoner and a mountain climber.
But he was leaving the force not by his choice but because of department regulations, which mandate retirement by age 63. By some accounts and despite his other pursuits, Chief Silks was not prepared to cease being a cop.
“The way I think of police work, is it’s a love-hate relationship," Dr. Violanti said, adding that retired cops continue to be at risk of suicide.
Alluding to Chief Silks, he said: “Many officers really love the job, and it’s the power of the badge and the symbolic meaning of being someone special. In his case, a leader, and being in the world, and I think he really enjoyed that.”