As reported by nj.com, on a Monday morning in late March, counselors filed into the Piscataway police department on an urgent mission. The day before, a veteran officer distraught over the breakup of his second marriage had been killed during a shootout with colleagues in what some authorities called a clear case of “suicide by cop.” The counselors were there to give grieving officers a chance to talk through their emotions. They also wanted them to know that in times of crisis, there are alternatives to suicide, a growing problem one psychologist calls an “epidemic” among law enforcement officers in New Jersey and across the nation.
The March 27 death of Sergeant David Powell, 46, marked at least the fifth time this year an active or retired officer had taken his life in New Jersey, putting the state on pace to eclipse last year’s grim tally of 13 suicides, according to records kept by Cherie Castellano, the founder and director of a state-sponsored counseling service known as Cop2Cop.
New Jersey had just two known law enforcement suicides in 2002, the first year Castellano began keeping records. While the number has fluctuated since then, it’s been steadily climbing for the past seven years despite growing awareness and a flurry of programs to combat the problem.
Nationally, more than 400 active and retired officers commit suicide each year, said Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation. No single force can be linked to the increase, according to those who study the issue. Rather, it’s a combination of factors that includes the ready availability of firearms, the stresses inherent in police work, difficulty explaining those stresses to loved ones and an inability to “transition from the street to the home,” said Douglas, a retired Baltimore police officer.
Eugene Stefanelli, the psychologist who refers to police suicides as an epidemic, has been working with the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association to address the issue. Substance abuse, he agrees, plays a role in the increased risk of suicide. But Stefanelli also cited morale problems fostered by what he said was a lenient judicial system that returns criminals to the streets, a reduced respect for officers in general and “administrative pressures” within departments.
To Castellano, the founder of Cops2Cops, a helpline staffed by former officers and managed by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, even the economy cannot be discounted as a contributing factor. Police departments across New Jersey have slashed jobs and benefits in recent years. State officials have taken some steps to address the growing number of suicides, making suicide-prevention programs available for officers and, beginning last year, mandating the training for cadets at New Jersey’s academies.
State PBA President Anthony Wieners said it’s difficult to gauge how effective his own unions’ program has been. But given the consequences of failure, he said, “That’s not going to stop us from trying.”