The New York City Police Department, the largest municipal police department in the country, lost its ninth officer this year to suicide as it struggles to cope with a mental health crisis that’s seen its suicide rate double.
The death of NYPD officer Robert Echeverría, 56, on Wednesday came just one day after another officer, Johnny Rios, 35, killed himself.
Another five officers killed themselves in the last 10 weeks. The average number of NYPD officer suicides in previous years had usually been around four or five.
“This is just absolutely devastating to each and every member of this police department,” said Commissioner James O’Neill. When he heard about the latest death, he “almost stopped breathing for a second,” said the NYPD chief. “I couldn’t believe it. But it’s real, it’s happening, and we have to take care of each other.”
But as New York officials work to try to stem the crisis, police on the other side of the country in Los Angeles have been watching in horror.
“This is crazy,” said Denise Jablonski-Kaye, a clinical psychologist and the assistant commanding officer of behavioral science services at the LAPD. “It really is.”
Since July 2017, there have been no reported suicides of officers at the LAPD, where the department has an entirely different way of handling mental health services.
Jablonski-Kaye believes the NYPD needs to immediately change its approach, noting that the LAPD has 16 full-time clinical psychologists who are embedded in its force — each has an assigned station that they visit most weeks, and participate in ride-alongs — and offer free counseling with no limit on sessions.
“With nine suicides, what you’re seeing is a system that’s broken,” said Jablonski-Kaye. “The police force there, a large part, must feel hopeless, that this is something that we can’t fix. And I think the agency, the NYPD, must feel hopeless as well.”
She called on the NYPD to invest money and effort to tackle the crisis, comparing an officer to a drowning person who is being blamed for jumping into the water.
“I really believe it’s the agency’s job to make sure the life preservers are accessible and available,” she said. “I’m realizing I’m saying things I want them to hear.”
Commissioner O’Neill outlined three new suicide prevention initiatives for the NYPD on Thursday night: an app with mental health information, an independent medical facility where appointments within 24 hours are available, and a boost to mental health insurance.
Police suicide is an issue across the country. According to Blue H.E.L.P., an independent organization that tallies deaths by suicides of police and corrections officers, both active and retired, 124 officers have died by suicide in 2019.
The organization counted 167 deaths in 2018 and 169 deaths in 2017.
Police officers and firefighters were more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, a white paper study by the Ruderman Family Foundation concluded in 2018.
“The important thing we all need to understand is that police officers experience trauma virtually every day,” Miriam Heyman, a coauthor of the white paper, told BuzzFeed News.
She pointed out that it’s not just major traumatic events like a mass shooting or an officer-involved shooting that can traumatize officers. First responders have higher rates than the general public of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and addiction, but “we should expect to see these things” due to the nature of their jobs, Heyman said.
She noted that treatment is highly effective, but getting access to treatment is usually the biggest barrier, thanks to the stigma around mental health issues in the police force, an occupation focused on being strong and saving others.
Plus, Heyman said she feared the NYPD’s spate of suicides pointed to “some type of contagion effect in New York that is difficult to reverse.”
Her research found that less than 10% of police departments in the US have suicide prevention programs.
In New York, the NYPD is now trying to train many of its 36,000 officers in suicide awareness and prevention so that colleagues are better able to help one another.
The Chicago Police Department, the country’s second largest with 13,000 officers, has had three deaths by suicide this year. Last year, it had four deaths.
In June, Chicago PD launched “I Reached Out,” a video showing senior officers, including Superintendent Eddie Johnson, talking about their personal struggles and how they’d sought help by talking with medical professionals.
Both Jablonski-Kaye and Heyman noted that having chiefs and commanding officers speak about their own personal experience is one of the biggest ways to get officers to access mental health services.
In Los Angeles, 350 officers are trained in peer support, with Jablonski-Kaye noting that’s how most officers — there are 10,000 in the department — first access the clinical psychologist services.
At the LAPD, unlike most police departments, including the NYPD, the staff psychologists who conduct debriefing sessions with officers after traumatic incidents or hold private counseling sessions are not the same people who oversee fitness-for-duty examinations under the health department.
That means officers are more likely to be candid with the psychologist, because they understand it won’t impact the results of their fitness-for-duty examinations, said Jablonski-Kaye.
She believes the numbers at LAPD speak for themselves. There was one reported death by suicide in 2017, two in 2016, one in 2015, four in 2014, and zero in 2013.
However, data around suicide can be unreliable: Sometimes family or others choose not to disclose the cause of death, or it may be viewed as accidental.
Unlike most occupations, police officers have access to a deadly weapon. At least six of the NYPD killed themselves using a gun, usually their own service weapon.
“There are stressors of the job complicated by stressors you have in your own personal life and compounded by the fact you have a firearm on your hip,” said Chief Terence Monahan in an interview with WNYC.
Nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides. People are less likely to attempt suicide with a gun — 6% of all attempts — but the nature of the weapon makes death more likely, with around half of all suicide deaths involving a firearm.
Earlier this year, Chicago PD introduced a policy allowing officers with mental health issues to surrender their gun and remain on desk duty with full pay.
After the news of the latest death by suicide, the NYPD tweeted phone numbers and links to websites offering mental health services. “Behind each of these resources are people that care about your well-being,” they wrote.
“Those might be fine resources but it feels rote at this point,” said Jablonski-Kaye, noting that officers are less likely to call a random number and talk to a stranger.
But it depends on the person, Heyman said. “We hear police officers are so terrified of losing their job, that anonymity is critical,” she said.
There is no single answer for suicide prevention and mental health for police officers, Heyman said, and departments need to offer a variety of services based on the individual needs of their officers and communities.
“If there was a perfect formula,” said Heyman, “then everyone would be doing it.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org. You can also text TALK to 741741 for free, anonymous 24/7 crisis support in the US from the Crisis Text Line.