Suffolk County Police Department shield. 

Suffolk County Police Department shield.  Credit: Barry Sloan

When police officers leave the hospital after a serious physical injury, uniformed colleagues and other well-wishers usually stand at the exit door to applaud their recovery. But when a police officer has a serious mental illness, it can often seem like there’s no one there at all. In the worst cases, these officers, lacking adequate mental health care, can wind up taking their own lives.

The recent alarming suicide deaths of four Suffolk County law enforcement officers has county officials conferring with leaders of the county’s largest police union to devise ways to combat this deeply troubling, emotionally complex problem.

Nationally, law enforcement officers are 54% more likely to die of suicide than workers in the general public, according to a 2021 study of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality data. Experts say daily stress and frequent exposure to traumatic incidents, like murder, accidental deaths and child sexual abuse, can take a toll on police officers.

“More officers die by suicide than are killed on the line of duty,” concluded the Police Executive Research Forum, an independent think tank, in 2019. “Because officer suicide is now the No. 1 officer safety issue, we need to make suicide prevention a national priority.” That year, the 239 police officer suicides nationally exceeded the number killed or fatally injured in the line of duty, it said.

Police suicide has been a growing problem for years, but important recent steps have slowed the rate. In 2020, President Donald Trump signed the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Act to better understand the extent of the problem. In 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Public Safety Officer Support Act that extends disability and death benefits to families of officers who die by suicide as a result of exposure to traumatic events while on duty.

In Suffolk, much more needs to be done. For years, two county mental health counselor positions, designed to help employees with debilitating psychological problems and thoughts of suicide, went unfilled for budgetary reasons. Suffolk must act swiftly to hire well-trained counselors, preferably those with law enforcement backgrounds who can empathize with the daily stresses and traumatic impact of being a cop. This is already done in Nassau.

Suffolk PBA president Lou Civello, who is working with newly elected County Executive Ed Romaine and the legislature on this pressing problem, says the county must treat mental illness from job trauma the same way it deals with physical injuries. This would involve paying for ongoing medical care beyond an inpatient facility. He says police work has become more dangerous and that cops are sometimes unfairly vilified by critics, which can affect a psychologically vulnerable officer considering suicide.

Suffolk must recognize the risks to mental health that police work can pose and make sure that those who serve get whatever help they need to deal with its psychological toll.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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