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The greatest loss: Police suicides

Good police officers are experts at hiding their emotions, so only a partner or very close co-worker may see the warning signs

Rat out your buddy. Choose to have a former friend who is alive and well.

Every year in the United States we lose more than 100 officers in the line of duty due to felonious attacks, traffic accidents and other causes. Though the numbers are more difficult to accurately pin down, a similar number of officers die each year by their own hand. Having seen firsthand the horrible effects of both types of deaths, I believe suicides cause more damage to the surviving officers and departments. We can more easily understand an officer dying as a sheepdog, protecting their flock. Suicides are more difficult to understand and almost impossible to shake off as friends and co-workers can become crushed with guilt about what they might have or should have done to help save that officer’s life.

As I write this article, we are learning about two NYPD officers who died by suicide a day apart this week. Deputy Chief Steven Silks was a month away from mandatory retirement after serving for nearly 39 years, while Detective Joe Calabrese had served the NYPD since 1982. The accomplishments of both officers in the department were impressive, but we can never see into the soul of another and comprehend the darkness that can overwhelm the light. I am certain many of their friends and co-workers are overwhelmed by grief and the feeling they should have seen this coming. This is why I consider police suicides the greatest loss of all, as all too often more than one officer “dies.”

Steps leaders can take to prevent officer suicide

In every leadership school I have ever taught, we dedicate at least one hour of discussion to critical incident stress. Effective leaders MUST understand the effect stress will have on the performance of their officers during a major incident and the lasting damage they must deal with for years to come. Indeed, a commander’s effectiveness as a leader during the incident can lessen (or greatly increase) the stress officers experience.

We always build in a long break after the critical incident stress segment of a class because we have learned that someone in the class – and sometimes more than one person – will seek out an instructor during the break and relate a horror story from their experience. Sometimes the stress lecture will affect an officer so deeply an immediate intervention becomes necessary.

The most heartbreaking stories I have heard revolve around the suicide of an officer in their agency. I have seen more than one tough cop wipe away tears as they make an almost predictable statement, “One of our officers died by suicide and I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t have the courage to do anything to stop it.” These are officers who work the most dangerous neighborhoods and go on SWAT missions almost daily, yet are afraid to confront a deeply depressed friend to try to get them to seek help. Even if they did try to help their desperate friend, taking the next step – going to a supervisor with the information – was unthinkable.

We are told throughout our careers that the cops who have interests outside of work are often the healthiest, mentally. Being passionate about a hobby, church or volunteer activity like mentoring an Explorer Post or coaching little league can help you avoid the depression of what police officers do and see every day on the street. Those same things can give you something to look forward to when it comes time to pull the pin and retire.

Supervisors should be especially alert for warning signs of possible suicide in their team that include a change in behavior, attitude or performance. Unfortunately, good police officers are experts at hiding their emotions, so only a partner or very close co-worker may see the warning signs.

Saving a life is more important than saving a friendship

At one point in my career, after I had heard several terrible suicide stories, my supervisor and good friend’s life went into the toilet after a string of powerful stressors. After one funeral he said, “The preacher talked about going to see Jesus, and I thought maybe that’s what I need to do.” After hearing a couple of similar statements, I did the normal “guy” thing and told him to knock off such talk or I would kick his ass. We both laughed it off, but his funk seemed to deepen every day. So, I did the unthinkable and told his boss my fears.

The department forced him to an intervention and handled things quite well, I thought. But he felt I had stabbed him in the back. He transferred to another job and our friendship was clearly over. Not being privy to the follow-up counseling he received, I was left wondering if I had overreacted. Had I done the right thing?

A couple of years before I retired from that agency my friend showed up one day at my office door and said, “I need to apologize to you.” I told him I was probably the one who needed to apologize, but he stopped me and said, “No, I was closer to suicide than I realized. I’m sorry I put you in a position where you had to make such a tough decision. You did the right thing.”

My reply: “I did it because I truly thought your life was in danger and I hoped my actions would help keep you alive. But I also did it for me. I didn’t want to be another of those guys who would spend the rest of my life saying, ‘One of our officers committed suicide and I knew it was going to happen, but I didn’t have the courage to do anything to stop it.’”

It will be the most difficult thing you will ever do, but if you suspect a fellow officer is contemplating suicide, you must report your observations. Choose to have a former friend who is alive and well. Because if you do nothing and that officer dies by suicide, a part of you will die with them.

I encourage you to share this message with every cop you know, both active and retired. If you are struggling with your own mental health, there are suicide prevention resources available specifically for first responders. You are not alone.

Dick Fairburn has had more than 26 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming. He has worked patrol, investigations and administration assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst, and as the Section Chief of a major academy’s Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident Training program.