Two incidents the last few weeks regarding celebrity suicides—fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain—have brought the topic of suicide to light. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates for the overall population have climbed nearly 30% since 1999. Other reports show that incidents of suicide have increased in nearly every state since the late 1990s and suicide now claims about 45,000 American lives a year. The CDC also noted that nearly half of people who died by suicide had a known mental health condition. But they also noted that those without a known mental health condition were more likely to struggle with a significant “life event.”
Such was the case of New Orleans (La.) Police Sergeant Paul Accardo.
Accardo was the spokesperson for the NOPD in the early stages of Hurricane Katrina. According to his chief, the constant press coverage of the 1,500-officer agency’s performance in the days following the storm put a tremendous strain on the sergeant.
But what wasn’t widely known was that Accardo himself was a victim of Katrina, having lost almost everything he owned during the storm, including his home and all his clothes. He died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after taking notes for another of the constant press appearances, this time at the scene of where an NOPD officer had been shot. His death followed the suicide of another NOPD officer, Patrolman Lawrence Celestine, by just one day.
Sadly, this happens in our profession far too often.
Police suicide is never easy to talk about. Some studies indicate police officers are eight times more likely to kill themselves than die by felonious assault. Other experts report that police officers have a three times greater chance of taking their own lives than to die in a job related accident, and that they are twice as likely to commit suicide as other municipal workers. Regardless of which report you deem accurate, police suicides have been the focus of intense study by mental health professionals for over a decade now.
The Badge of Life organization (firstname.lastname@example.org) has compiled some statistics. According to them, 141 officers took their own life in 2008. That number was 143 the following year. In 2012, they reported 126 officers died by their own hand and in 2016, the number dropped to 108. Last year it was back up to 140. Some other notable figures revealed that the average age of the officers was 42 years old with 17 years on the job. Sergeants, like Accardo, accounted for 22% of the suicides. 87% were males and the most common means, not surprising, was a gunshot.
A story from the New York Daily News (April 20, 2018) reported that four NYPD officers took their own lives in the preceding four months, the most recent being that morning at 10:50 a.m. where an on-duty officer parked outside the Auto Crime/Narcotics Division facility in his POV and shot himself. On February 26, Officer Rachel Bocatija, killed herself in her home and the month before (January), two NYPD officers, Sgt. Joe Pizzarro and Det. Nick Budney, took their own lives.
What are some of the danger signs that an officer may be slipping emotionally? Some are obvious: compulsive drinking or dependency on meds. Others not so obvious are distancing or isolation from family, friends, and social events. Statements from officers who knew Sgt. Accardo said he seemed “distant” and “detached” prior to his suicide.
Extreme emotional outbursts both on and off the job or blowing up over nothing could also be a warning sign. Neglecting their regular workouts or avoiding usual recreational activities might be clues an officer is slipping into depression.
First, if you know or suspect a brother or sister officer is contemplating taking their own life, you have to be direct. That means confronting the officer face to face even if that seems uncomfortable. By direct, I mean come right out and ask “Are you thinking of killing yourself?”
If they aren’t they’ll probably strongly deny it. But if they are, you’ll know it by their positive response, a shrug of their shoulders, or the look in their eyes. If you get that affirmative reply, you’ve got a dilemma on your hands. If you go to “the Job,” the officer might either get transferred or taken off the street and they’ll inevitably blame it on you. If you do nothing, they may go through with their plan.
In the April 20, 2018 death, the NYPD was alerted to the incident via panicked relatives who received a call that the officer was planning to harm himself. Bottom line: You have an obligation to do whatever you can to get that officer some professional help. And some of those things may be uncomfortable: telling their partner, telling their spouse (if you know him or her), or going to “the Job” via your agency’s police physician or even the officer’s boss.
Whatever you do, don’t keep it to yourself or brush it off. Be compassionate. Allow your colleague to be honest with you, without fear of judgement or stigma. Then, at the very least, contact the National Police Suicide Foundation or the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Police suicide is an occupational hazard. The numbers don’t lie.
National Police Suicide Foundation
Seaford, DE 19973
Dr. Robert E. Douglas, Jr.
International Critical Incident Stress Foundation
Ellicott City, MD 21043