That old ideal of law-enforcement officers as “the strong, silent type” was shaken at its foundations when three NYPD officers took their lives in a nine-day period earlier this month.
The reasons behind their actions remain wrapped in mystery. There has been speculation that Deputy Chief Steven Silks, a popular commander who seemingly had enough outside interests that his looming retirement should have been welcomed rather than dreaded, couldn’t imagine life away from the job.
No explanations or theories have been offered for why Det. Joseph Calabrese and Police Officer Michael Caddy killed themselves. Mr. Calabrese at 57 was still a productive homicide investigator, Mr. Caddy at 29 had a long career ahead of him.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill said three cops dying by their own hands in such a short period of time was evidence of “a mental-health crisis.” He and other commanders urged any cops fighting depression to talk to someone, whether a psychologist or a trusted colleague on the force.
Their words were evidence that the department has come a long way from the macho culture that prevailed in the Police Department as recently as three or four decades ago, and made officers reluctant to seek therapy even if it involved private doctors, for fear that if word got out it would stigmatize them within the department.
There is still concern, however, that seeking help in-house could derail an officer’s career. Two police-union leaders, Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins and his counterpart at the Captains Endowment Association, Roy Richter, spoke to this newspaper’s Richard Khavkine with perception and emotion about the uncertainty many cops feel about going through department channels.
“People are afraid to come to the department because the trust factor isn’t there,” Mr. Mullins said, noting that officers are concerned about having their firearms taken away from them, being transferred, or being passed over for promotion because someone wonders about their mental state.
Cops face a paradox that places them at a disadvantage from the average person enduring a tough time mentally. Because a gun is part of their basic equipment, it is easier to act on a suicidal impulse that might pass if it weren‘t so readily available; on the other hand, having your gun taken away from you is regarded as the kind of rebuke that could dissuade officers from admitting discomfort with work or their personal lives.
Mr. Richter, whose members include commanders at the upper levels of the NYPD hierarchy, emphasized, “We need to work on communicating and expressing that resources are available and that people can take advantage without harming their careers.”
The commanding officer of the NYPD’s Employee Assistance Unit, Lieut. Janna Salisbury, rebutted the thinking behind that concern by telling Mr. Khavkine that reaching out for help in many cases is the best way for an officer to save his or her career while getting the treatment they may need. But she also acknowledged that the surest way to alleviate any lingering sense of a stigma being attached to getting mental-health counseling was to make doing so “normalized” within the department.
Sergeant Mullins said that the way to accomplish that was to have all officers submit to regular visits to counselors or therapists, in the same way that they are required to visit a shooting range once or twice a year to recertify their marksmanship.
“If everybody has to do it, where is the stigma?” he said.
Beyond that unassailable logic, making such check-ups part of all officers’ annual regimens is a good idea simply because not all cops going through rough times psychologically make it obvious to those around them. Chief Silks, Mr. Richter said, “was the go-to guy. People went to him with their problems.”
Clearly, he took pride in being a soothing influence; tragically, he apparently never got the kind of help he freely gave others.
Helping others is a basic element of police work. What the department and the unions must do is instill in officers at all levels the understanding that seeking help themselves when it’s needed can be a key part of being able to do their jobs well.
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