Police suicides in Suffolk County highlight mental health risks for law enforcement

Four law enforcement officers in Suffolk County died by suicide in a four-week span earlier this year, bringing renewed attention to the unique risk factors facing police and the ways in which departments are combatting it.

New York has lost 30 law enforcement officers to suicide since 2022 — more than any other state, according to the nonprofit 1st H.E.L.P., which tracks the data.

The NYPD lost 10 officers to suicide in 2019 alone. The rate has since slowed, with about four officers dying by suicide each year, according to police statistics.

Those who study suicide and its contributing factors say law enforcement agencies could save lives with more supports, like safe and secure storage of weapons and greater access to mental health care.

The late Suffolk officers worked in different departments: one worked with the Probation Department, another with the Sheriff’s Office, and two worked with the county police department. But officers said all four losses were felt universally.

“The rank-and-file were severely hurt,” said Lou Civello, president of the Suffolk County PBA, which represents county officers.

He said officers face “crazy” schedules, including working overnight, on weekends and during holidays. Personal problems like divorce can be compounded by the fact that officers regularly respond to 911 calls for domestic disputes. The job also involves regular exposure to death.

“We see the worst of humanity,” Civello said, adding that officers also feel “demonized” by segments of the public. “And if you don’t have an outlet for that, there’s going to be negative consequences.”

Suffolk County officials told Newsday that they seek to fill two vacant counseling positions within the police department.

Jeff Thompson, a psychologist, is a former NYPD detective who was the agency’s first mental health and wellness coordinator. He’s now a researcher at Columbia University’s psychiatry department and has run suicide prevention trainings for first responders across the world.

“People like to fit things into nice neat little boxes — suicide isn’t one of them,” he said.

Officers need daily tools to take care of themselves and resources for help when they’re in crisis, he said. Departments should collect data after a suicide to understand the causes that contributed to the death and use that information to help other officers, he added.

“We owe it to that fallen brother or sister to find out as much as we can what happened,” he said. “If they dedicated their life to help others, where did it go wrong for them?”

Civello, from the PBA, is lobbying for the Suffolk County Police Department to institute a Mental Health Bill of Rights, which would remove impediments and ensure anonymity for officers seeking mental health care.

“When seeking care, the big fear is that you will be hurt in your career,” Civello said.

The PBA is also supporting a state Assembly bill, named for a Schenectady police officer who died by suicide, that protects the confidentiality of officers who get mental health assistance from peer counselors trained to help colleagues.

“We find police officers are more willing to engage with other police officers — where they’ve lived the life, seen the same things,” Civello said.

Civello is also looking at other means of aiding officers, like mandating trauma-informed therapy for officers involved in a difficult incident or especially disturbing area of work, like sex crime investigations.

Michael Anestis, a psychologist who is executive director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, said “warrior culture” is a factor in the higher suicide rate among officers: “You solve your own problems. You don’t talk about your feelings. You don’t reveal what might be perceived as weakness.”

Cops are likewise drawn to potentially traumatic situations, he said, and “less fearful of things like danger and injury and the things that you have to be exposed to.”

Access to firearms is a major risk factor

Anestis said the single greatest risk factor for suicide regardless of occupation is access to firearms, which is a fact of life for law enforcement officers. However, he said that officers who die by suicide with a gun usually use their own firearms, not their service weapons. One 2020 study in “Policing: An International Journal” found that the suicide rate among officers in the United States is 54% higher than those with other occupations.

The best way to reduce the risk of suicide is by providing ways to store firearms safely — sometimes in the home, unloaded and locked away, but also off-site, for when a gun owner needs “voluntary, temporary separation from the firearm until you’re sort of back where you normally feel like yourself,” Anestis said.

The Rockefeller Institute maps businesses in New York that offer voluntary storage of weapons. The New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center, where Anestis works, maintains a similar map for New Jersey.

Anestsis said messaging about secure firearm storage should come from law enforcement.

“If they can persuasively promote the importance of shifting social norms about how we store our firearms at home … those same folks who are receiving that message in law enforcement can themselves become effective messengers for the [general] population,” he said. “So they can benefit, but also serve.”

A spokesperson for the NYPD pointed to a litany of mental health care resources the department offers officers, including a mandatory briefing with a mental health professional and peer counselor after a challenging or traumatic incident.

But Anestis said that’s not enough to prevent suicides.

“We’re not going to mental health care system our way out of this problem,” he said. “The only strategy that’s ever actually meaningfully and sustainably reduced suicide rates at national or large local levels is taking the most highly lethal method for suicide and making it less accessible or less deadly.”

Civello said that if officers lock up their guns when not at work, there should be ways to do so without stigmatizing the officers. Still, he said not all officers use guns. Two of the four Suffolk officers used other means, he said.

One of those officers spoke with a lifelong friend — Suffolk County Legislator Robert Trotta, a former officer himself — hours before he died. Trotta said the officer had worked the overnight shift for two decades, and added that he believes affected his mental well-being.

“You put the stress of going through a divorce and stress at home combined with the fact that you’re working ’til 2 in the morning… it’s a recipe for disaster,” Trotta said. “Then, you’ve got the accessibility to a gun.”

Sleep disruption is a suicide risk factor, Anestis said, and emergency room physicians who have similarly challenging hours also have elevated suicide rates.

“If you’re 20 years working the overnight shift, it means you’re less engaged with the traditional sort of social life of the waking world,” Anestis said. “You’re up when others sleep and you’re asleep while others are up … We’re a social species, and things that cause someone to have a disrupted connection are very problematic.”

Thompson, the former officer, works with departments in the aftermath of suicides. He advises that departments have mandatory mental health checkups, and he thinks police chiefs should tell their officers when they’re going for their own counseling sessions.

“We’re human beings doing super work, but ultimately we’re humans. We need compassion, we need care,” he said. “Behind that badge, behind that patch, is a human being.”

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide: do not leave the person alone; remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt. Call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org, take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

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