POLICE SUICIDE IS AN ALARMING PROBLEM RARELY DISCUSSED PUBLICLY
Stress is taking its toll on police officers throughout the nation, though it is a problem that many departments are loath to talk about publicly. And that includes Philadelphia's.
"It's difficult to put your arms around the problem, when so few people are willing to talk about it," said Councilman Michael Nutter. "Everyone knows it's a serious problem, but not many will discuss it."
New York City has a different attitude. Last week, police brass became so alarmed at the number of suicides among officers that it set in motion a new program to recruit and train cops as peer counselors.
In a police force of more than 30,000, suicides among officers have been on the rise. Fourteen uniformed men killed themselves last year. Others atempted suicide but were thwarted by alert officers who intervened in time.
A recent study revealed that New York City officers kill themselves at a rate of 29 per 100,000 a year. The rate of suicide in the general population is 12 per 100,000. Most of the victims are young males with no record of misconduct who shoot themselves while off duty.
Nationally, twice as many cops - about 300 annually - commit suicide as are killed in the line of duty, according to a study by the National Association of Police Chiefs.
In Philadelphia, officers with probIems sometimes receive help from the Employee Assistance Program within the department. Their concerns range from stress on the job to personal dilemmas that sometimes become overwhelming.
Michael Broader, a clinical psychologist, has been working with the EAP since July of this year. He says that "the dynamics of the job" sometimes lead officers to take their own lives. The fact that officers have a weapon strapped at their waist at all times also plays a role.
Alcohol is sometimes a factor, along with troubled marriages or relationships. Many policemen live with added pressure from families who complain that they "never have a day off."
It's difficult in Philadelphia to determine just why cops take their own lives, or how many, due to the state's confidentiality law. In addition, the police deny they keep such statistics.
Capt. Gus Carre, the commanding officer at EAP, did say stress among police officers is not unusual. "It's a difficult job made more difficult by the individuals that officers must deal with on a daily basis."
Many police officers see a steady diet of the grim underside of life that most people rarely see.
They are usually first at the scene when babies are killed, when wives are battered, when addicts die of an overdose or when accidents kill or maim citizens. It all takes its toll on even the most hard-nosed officers.
A few years ago in Northeast Philadelphia, an officer sat with his gun pressed to his, head for four hours. Finally, he was talked into putting his weapon down.
Unfortunately, not every situation is as easily resolved. Several times last year, Philadelphia officers killed themselves before help arrived.
Many officers here and throughout the nation refuse to seek needed assistance because they fear it will result in their being labeled "weak."
Police officers are almost always high on the list of suicide groups," says Mort Feldman, vice president of the chiefs' group. Feldman was a policeman in Florida for 30 years. "This is a national concern," he said in an interview. "What is needed is to separate Employee Assistance Programs from the police department. A liaison should be established between cops and mental health associations.
"Policemen are often reluctant to tell people in the chain of command they're having problems because they fear their careers will be destroyed. So they make the mistake of trying to solve their problems quietly and that often leads to alcohol or substance abuse or suicide."
Many suicides by police go unreported to avoid stigmatizing families and to allow them to collect insurance claims and other compensation.
Another officer admitted he's seen reports that list suicides under a broad classification of "accidental discharge of a weapon" that was anything but accidental.
Feldman says some police officers trade their wives and kids for the job: "If they're even questioned during an investigation, some officers who are completely clean feel betrayed by the job.... Occasionally, such an individual, feeling betrayed by his fellow officers, will kill himself because he feels he's been abandoned."
Feldman said his organization didn't keep statistics on police suicides by city "because I know we wouldn't be given the right numbers."
Although Philadelphia police refused to share their numbers, they are well aware how many officers kill themselves every year. They must think that hiding the problem will make it go away, but all that does is suggest that police suicides may be even more widespread than most people think.
Permission to republish granted by Claude Lewis and the Philadelphia Inquirer.