As reported by, 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.”

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Photo of Donald C. Barbati Donald C. Barbati

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues…

Donald C. Barbati is a shareholder of Crivelli, Barbati & DeRose, L.L.C. His primary practice revolves around the representation of numerous public employee labor unions in various capacities to include contract negotiation, unfair labor practice litigation, contract grievance arbitration, and other diverse issues litigated before the courts and administrative tribunals throughout the State of New Jersey. In addition, Mr. Barbati also routinely represents individuals in various types of public pension appeals, real estate transactions, and general litigation matters. He is a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Public Safety Officers Law Blog, a free legal publication designed to keep New Jersey public safety officers up-to-date and informed about legal issues pertinent to their profession. During his years of practice, Mr. Barbati has established a reputation for achieving favorable results for his clients in a cost-efficient manner.

Mr. Barbati has also handled numerous novel legal issues while representing New Jersey Public Safety Officers. Most notably, he served as lead counsel for the Appellants in the published case In re Rodriguez, 423 N.J. Super. 440 (App. Div. 2011). In that case, Mr. Barbati successfully argued on behalf of the Appellants, thereby overturning the Attorney General’s denial of counsel to two prison guards in a civil rights suit arising from an inmate assault. In the process, the Court clarified the standard to be utilized by the Attorney General in assessing whether a public employee is entitled to legal representation and mandated that reliance must be placed on up-to-date information.

Prior to becoming a practicing attorney, Mr. Barbati served as a judicial law clerk to the Honorable Linda R. Feinberg, Assignment Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer Vicinage. During his clerkship Mr. Barbati handled numerous complex and novel substantive and procedural issues arising from complaints in lieu of prerogative writs, orders to show cause, and motion practice. These include appeals from decisions by planning and zoning boards and local government bodies, bidding challenges under the Local Public Contract Law, Open Public Records Act requests, the taking of private property under the eminent domain statute, and election law disputes. In addition, Mr. Barbati, as a certified mediator, mediated many small claims disputes in the Special Civil Part.

Mr. Barbati received a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, magna cum laude, from Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Upon graduating, Mr. Barbati attended Widener University School of Law in Wilmington, Delaware. In 2007, he received his juris doctorate, magna cum laude, graduating in the top five percent of his class. During law school, Mr. Barbati interned for the Honorable Joseph E. Irenas, Senior United States District Court Judge for the District of New Jersey in Camden, New Jersey, assisting on various constitutional, employment, and Third Circuit Court of Appeals litigation, including numerous civil rights, social security, and immigration cases.