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July 11, 2019

How to save officers’ lives: The right way to respond to a rash of cop suicides

By Patrick J. Lynch

Find ways to help them. (Jesse Ward/for New York Daily News)

Cops are human beings. The NYPD leaders and elected officials searching for a response to the recent rash of police suicides must focus on that fact, first and foremost.

We have lost six of our brothers to suicide so far this year, four of them within the past month alone. The only thing they had in common was the job itself.

They are among the 102 police officers nationwide who are known to have killed themselves this year, according to the police mental health non-profit Blue H.E.L.P. And in a startling WNBC-TV Ch. 4 survey of cops nationwide, nearly one in five officers said they had contemplated suicide.

What role does our profession play in this crisis? The answer isn’t a simple one, but any solution that does not address the growing — and often unnecessary — psychological burdens of modern policing is bound to fail.

As I said, cops are human beings. On and off duty, we deal with the same personal challenges as anybody else: trouble in family relationships, financial stress, grief, loneliness, depression and the like. These private struggles are certainly compounded by the things we experience on the street: not just the split-second decisions made in life-or-death situations, but the daily grind of human misery and human depravity.

But there is an entirely separate layer of stress that our civilian neighbors may not know about or fully understand. Not the stress of the job, but the stress from The Job.

Cops on the street are at the bottom of a teetering pile of demonization, anti-police rhetoric and conflicting directives: maintain NYC’s status as the safest big city in America, but do it without running afoul of anti-cop activists who aim to strip away all of the tools we have used to achieve that goal in the first place.

As a result, there are New York City police officers who are, right now, lying awake when they should be sleeping, worrying not whether they did the right thing, but whether they will get in trouble for doing the right thing.

When this daily pressure combines with some personal calamity to push a cop close to the brink, to whom can he or she turn for help? It is true that the NYPD offers a variety of official support services, but cops know that using those services can come with serious career repercussions.

In the Ch. 4 survey conducted in partnership with the Fraternal Order of Police, 76% were concerned about putting their job at risk if they asked for help.

As the NYPD works to improve its mental health support services, it must establish a clear and consistent policy that reporting or seeking treatment for mental health issues will have no adverse employment consequences. If a qualified, independent medical professional determines that a police officer is unable to perform his or her duties, that scenario should be treated like any physical injury.

And the politicians who are rushing to dump police officers’ personnel records into the public domain should be mindful that mental health services provided by an employer or a peer-support organization may not be covered by existing health-care privacy protections.

For the cops reading this, let me be very clear: If you are considering suicide, just make the call. Reach out to any place you can get professional assistance. Your health and your family are more important than anything else.

But for the non-cops, especially our city’s leaders, let me also be clear: If you are concerned about police officers’ mental health, focus on the things you can quickly and easily change.

Focus on eliminating the rhetoric that undermines morale. Focus on the policies that make the job harder and more stressful while offering nothing in return. Focus on ensuring that cops aren’t penalized for asking for help.

Focus on the cops themselves, not as political props or punching bags, but as human beings.