The growing number of suicides among New York City Police Officers is alarming and guess what? It should be!

There was a time when the highest risk of becoming a New York City Police Officer came from the general population of criminals. Today, the demon is not only outside the precinct but it is now within each police officer assigned to serve and protect.

An alarming number of officers of all ranks and status are turning the gun on themselves due to the extreme pressure of a growing hostile New York City population. The lines have been blurred (not only in NYC) between respecting the law and citizens taking the law into their own hands with little care for authority. Adequate sensitivity training, long hours and work load are probably some of the root causes for the highest level of anxiety among the police officers. However, we are finding it to be much more than these root causes regarding suicide among the NYPD.

2019 has proven to be on it’s way to be the most suicides in the 177 year history of the New York City Police Department. 1994, had a record 12 N.Y.P.D officers die by their own hand and this record could be sadly broken by the end of this year.

There could be one major reason for this latest spike in police suicides which appears to mirror the “crack” epidemic of the late 80’s and 90’s. During this period of time there wasn’t enough police and hours to handle the sudden influx of drug-gang related crimes. The physical and mental toll it took on the NYPD was palpable and resulted in a higher suicide rate by 1994. Today we have the explosion of prescription drug abuse and heroin use which has taken the place of crack as the drugs of choice. We appear to be back where we started in the 1980’s before Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared his own war on drugs and crime plummeted to an all time low in New York City.

Morale takes a hit among the police force when you feel like the criminals are winning and everyone from the Mayor to the Commissioner are overwhelmed. The initial reason people become police officers is to help others especially within the neighborhoods they came from and for the city they love so much. All of a sudden the “job” sets-in and you become disillusioned and everything becomes gray where it doesn’t feel like your contributions matter. Not even to the Mayor nor to your fellow officers and eventually not to the citizens you are trying to protect. Then the deep depression burrows inside you where now you feel like nothing matters to you anymore? This is a dangerous place to be when everything is gray on the outside and black on the inside. When the job of serving and protecting becomes empty and hollow and this is where corruption begins to seep in and you become part of the criminal element. The black hole becomes endless and there is no where to go but down. At this point your family and friends become emotionally distant from you as marriages deteriorate and it becomes difficult to feel a connection with even your children. This is the final step in the self destruction of a police officer where there is no hope for help.

Sgt. Linhong Li

With the tenth NYPD suicide at the time of this article was written, Sergeant Linhong Li fatally shot himself in his Queens home Tuesday, October 15, 2019. Sources said the wife of off-duty Sgt. Linhong Li found him in their Fresh Meadows home around 9:30 p.m. and called 911. Medics rushed him to Jamaica Hospital, where he died. Li was assigned to the 24th Precinct on the Upper West Side, police sources said. His death comes roughly two months after two officers, Johnny Rios, 35, and Robert Echeverria, 56, fatally shot themselves within a day of each other in their homes.

The grim death toll has gotten the attention of the department, and the NYPD has retooled its response to department suicides, encouraging all officers to seek mental health counseling if they have suicidal thoughts. They could have also contacted the SUICIDE PREVENTION HOTLINE but obviously they did not. Providing a means in which an officer can go for help as a form of “window dressing” does not get at the heart of the problem. Theses officers are taught to be strong alpha males and the women officers (18% of the force) are required to be tough and not show any signs of weakness and you want them to dial a hotline and ask for help? This is great if they work up the courage to finally make the call but you need to take more drastic measures if you truly want these suicides to stop.

Male Cops are taught to be strong and not conditioned ask for help!

A survey of recently retired cops reveals that 44 out of 174 (bout 25%) suffered enough stress to consider getting help at least once in their police careers, but just two-thirds of them actually followed through this according to a report in September 2019 from the NYPD’s inspector general, Philip Eure.

Eure recommended the department look at whether it should require mandatory periodic mental health checks for all officers, or for categories of at-risk officers. Something I thought was already being done? If they think they “should” do it then they need to just do it? There should be no debate over this. Mental Health Checks for all officers should be mandatory as much as possible especially after a particularly stressful crime has taken place and in situations where an officer justifiably killed a criminal or witnessed a brutal death (especially a child).

Women make up 18% of the NYPD. 4% of total suicide in the NYPD are women.

Officers fear that speaking up about a mental health issue will put their job on the line.

It’s a weakness to expose a weakness,” says retired NYPD Officer Peter Konovitch, who was on duty during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “There are certain things I’ve seen that still bother me immensely, but I would never address it with anyone.”

He says that officers often hear horror stories about colleagues being deemed mentally unfit for duty and demoted. They have their guns taken away, or are placed at a desk job — also known as “the rubber gun squad.”

“When they remove your guns, they remove your assignments,” Konovitch says. “They put you on restrictive duty. It’s a room where you watch cameras in the housing projects. It’s a dead end. You’re not a cop anymore.”

There are further barriers to treatment, says Friedman.

“Officers can’t be on anti-anxiety medications like Xanax or Valium, or anything that will slow down reaction time,” Friedman says. “They can be on antidepressants, though, and many of them work well.”

Konovitch says that, with the constant threat of drug tests looming over officers’ heads, they may not want to risk taking any medications that may show up on a test and jeopardize their careers, regardless of whether they’re legally allowed to take them or not.

Even when cops do seek therapy, they’ll often go to great lengths to make sure it’s off the books, says John Petrullo.

Chris Prochut

Chris Prochut, a former police commander in Illinois, says that the stigma around mental illness made his condition especially dire: He had planned his own suicide 11 years ago, down to the exact day he would shoot himself with his department-issued gun. He rejected talk therapy and was flushing prescribed anti-depressants down the toilet. He was afraid and embarrassed to share his feelings with his colleagues — who, eventually, had to personally escort him from his home to a mental hospital when his wife caught wind of his suicide plans.

As a result of his hospitalization, Prochut was stripped of his rank and his pension. “I was so ashamed,” he says. Prochut now speaks around the country about suicide prevention among cops.

“As a cop, I thought, ‘I’m always wearing a gun. I could do it at any time,’ ” says Prochut. When the stakes are that high, “you need to sit down and talk. That’s what’s going to save these officers’ lives.”

John Petrullo, director of the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance. His volunteer group of retired cops man a 24–7 hotline (800–599–1085) and can confidentially refer police officers to professional psychologists or psychiatrists.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800–273–8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘Home’ to 741741.

The NYPD needs to take the embarrassment out of asking for help. Perhaps taking the “ask” out if the equation and implement monthly in-house group therapy for each precinct. Make this as normal as a Monday Morning role call where all officers participate from all ranks and levels of responsibilities. You could think about having separate sessions for woman as their experience takes on a different anxiety that men do not experience.

Monthly Therapy for all

Having other Police Officers (retired or active) coming forward to speak out about the problems all officers share is a positive step in the right direction.

Matthew Hickey (Former NYPD Detective) remembers sitting on the couch in his Suffolk County living room, alone except for his dog, Jetta, with his NYPD service revolver in his hand and suicide on his mind. Wracked by depression, alcoholism and other self-destructive behaviors, the undercover detective was on an ever worsening downward spiral.

“‘Who is going to take care of you?’ ” Hickey recalled asking Jetta.

Yet Hickey couldn’t initially summon the courage to seek help. If not for the intervention of a family friend and a police organization, his story might have had a tragic ending.

Now, Hickey, 50, has become the face of the police suicide crisis. He has made a poignant, emotionally raw six-minute video for the NYPD that was unveiled last month in which he talks about his struggle to overcome suicidal thoughts and urges others to seek help without fear. It has been downloaded more than 100,000 times.

The retired detective has become part of the NYPD’s all-out effort to combat a record ten suicides in 2019 among active duty officers. In the video titled “Overcoming the Stigma of Depression,” Hickey recalls in vivid detail how various pressures, some from police work, others more personal, sunk him into depression. Exacerbated by heavy drinking, Hickey, who retired from the NYPD in 2010 and is now handling security at a Long Island hospital, said he got to the point where he thought about different ways to kill himself.

“I would go home at night and cry before I went to bed, and I would wake up crying that I woke up,” he explained in the video.

For the longest time in the years before 9/11, as the effects of depression and alcohol use wore him down , Hickey admitted he didn’t want to seek help. His problems took an increasing toll on him. In a career working undercover narcotics enforcement and even after he was promoted to detective. Hickey said his life began to unravel from financial, physical and, finally, emotional troubles.

Eventually, the NYPD placed Hickey on desk duty when he injured his back after jumping out of a police van during an arrest. The adrenaline rush of buy-and-bust drug operations and raids in which Hickey was often the first cop to break down a door was replaced by sedate and relatively boring work. “It wasn’t me, it wasn’t fun for me, desk jobs,” he said.

Hickey said he started drinking heavily to “self medicate” to ease physical pain and to blunt his growing boredom and unease.

“I slowly started having bad days and I started putting those bad days together until they never stopped, “ explained Hickey. “ I fell into a depression — a really bad depression.”

Hickey said he tried to mask his emotions when he was among other cops. While he seemed fine on the outside, Hickey said he was a mess emotionally. Then, on Sept. 9, 2001, just days before Sept. 11, everything changed. After one bout of drinking at a wedding, Hickey seemed ready to take his own life and decided to shoot himself on the deck of his apartment to avoid leaving a gory scene for his loved ones to find.

“I knew I might hurt them if I was to take my own life,” Hickey said. “But my head was telling me it’s the only answer to end the pain.”

After the wedding, Hickey made himself a pitcher of Bacardi and Coke and started dialing family and friends to say one last goodbye. The final call was to Roy Gorddard of Farmingdale, who was the father of a childhood friend and also happened to be a detective sergeant in the Nassau County Police Department.

Alarmed, Gorddard asked ‘“What is going on with you? Are you going to hurt yourself. … You’re going to kill yourself?”’

“I just started breaking down, crying,” Hickey remembered, adding he told Gorddard, “I can’t do it, I can’t live any more.”

Gorddard rushed to Hickey’s side. Together, they called his union delegate, who directed Hickey to seek help with the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance.

POPPA is a volunteer organization staffed 24 hours a day by both active duty and retired officers which seeks to assist officers going through psychological problems. Hickey’s first appointment through POPPA for a follow-up was for Sept. 11, 2001.

The terror attacks forced cancellation of the appointment and while Hickey wanted to report for duty to work at Ground Zero, he was told that he couldn’t because he was now on off-duty status.

“I was just devastated,” said Hickey about his sense of powerlessness at a time when the rest of the NYPD being taxed to the limit in the aftermath of the attack. “You feel like you weren’t there when you should have.”

POPPA got Hickey private counseling. The department temporarily took away Hickey’s gun and shield and POPPA helped him throughout his counseling period, which included Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Eventually, Hickey was well enough to return to full duty and was selected to serve in the prestigious hostage negotiation unit. He says he has not touched a drop of alcohol in 17 years.

It was over eight years after he retired that the NYPD approached Hickey to make the video. His experience in hostage negotiation, in which he sometimes dealt with suicidal cops, seemed to be a good fit for the project.

“It was not easy to do,” said Hickey about the making the video, “but I had to.”

The fact that Gorddard, who died in 2017, stepped up and helped him serves as an example of how another person can help someone suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.

Another tough part for Hickey was disclosing his ordeal to his parents. He finally told them after publicity about the video surfaced in Newsday. But his father and mother have supported him and said they never knew the kind of inner turmoil he was facing, he said.

Hickey said his own career rebounded and he went to the elite hostage negotiation unit even after he needed treatment.

“The job wants you to get help,” said Hickey, whose career with the NYPD spanned more than 20 years. “They want everybody to get the help they need.”

Former Detective Matthew Hickey

With a second career as a security official in the hospital field, Hickey is enjoying life after the NYPD. He married Jannine, an old high school friend, bought a house, indulged his passion for trucks and motorcycles and is thankful for having a second chance. His story, said Hickey, is a lesson for other cops going through personal torment.

“Whatever you are going through today can eventually be fixed again, you can get your finances back in order, you can get relationships back,” Hickey said. “You can get better. I promise you if you just try and ask for help.”

Weaving therapy sessions into each NYPD Precinct, both group and individual sessions, will remove the stigma of asking for help due to depression and anxiety. If you rely solely on the notion that a distressed police officer will dial their phone and admit they are in trouble is being naive or you really do not want to solve the problem. Treat this crisis as if it is your own child or spouse and it is amazing how many mountains you can move by making it personal.

Writer of life lessons sprinkled with meaningful sports and history editorials.