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High number of police suicides begs revisiting landmark Buffalo study

It was 2012 when University at Buffalo researcher and retired New York State Trooper John Violanti published one of the first studies to test - and find - the connection between stress and suicide in the Buffalo Police Department. His five-year study of 464 BPD officers found a higher percentage of chronic mental and physical health problems than the general population, including a 50% higher rate of suicide. The study is worth revisiting, as two major police departments are grappling with self-inflicted deaths.

New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill declared a mental health emergency after two of his officers took their own lives in two days, for a total of nine department suicides this year.

"You know, sometimes in law enforcement and policing it takes a while to change, but this is something that needs to change immediately," O'Neill told New York Public Radio WNYC. "This is our duty. This is our responsibility."

At 55,000 strong, the NYPD may be the largest police force in the nation, but it is not the only one seeing a higher-than-usual cluster of suicides. Chicago is grappling with the self-inflicted deaths of six officers in an eight-month period. It released this video, urging officers to reach out for help when they feel overwhelmed.

"When you sign up to be a police officer, you have to go in with eyes wide open, as they say. It's a front-row ticket to life," said Capt. Jeff Rinaldo, chief of staff for the Buffalo Police Department. Rinaldo told WBFO, he has seen a lot in his 21+ years on the force.

"As a patrol officer, you're exposed to horrific, gruesome crime scenes. As a detective, I worked in the Sex Offense Squad and I saw and witnessed crimes that are just unthinkable there," Rinaldo said. "As a lieutenant, I've had members of my platoon having to take that person to a crime scene where their son was dead. As a captain, the same thing. I'm also on the Crisis Management Team, so we're the hostage negotiators for the city. I've had friends of mine kill themselves behind a door that I was on the other side of."

Part 1: John Violanti talks about the stress of daily police work, including specific issues for Canadian police

Part 2: John Violanti talks about the global problem, the differences between male and female officers, and programs that help reduce chronic health problems among police

John Violanti, a UB research professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health, has been working with the BPD on the health of its officers since 2004. He said the longterm effects of such trauma can "wreck havoc" mentally and physically.

"Officers don't feel appreciated. They don't feel what they do has any meaning," Violanti said. "People who get into those positions can develop depression and when people get depressed, they sometimes maladaptively cope. They may go to alcohol, they might go to drugs and, ultimately, they might go to suicide."

Credit Royal Canadian Mounted Police
A Canadian mountie may have to patrol an entire county alone.

"Take all this negative energy and if you don't know how to get rid of it, it can be a time bomb, a pressure cooker," said Chicago Police Officer Cory Chapton in his department's video.

"I didn't actually want to take my own life, but I did not want to live," said former Chicago First Deputy Superintendent John Escalante, also featured in the video. "Getting up every day became a struggle. I dreaded getting up. I dreaded when the alarm went off because I would have to face reality."

Violanti said the United States is losing close to 100 police officers a year to suicide, but it is a worldwide problem.

"We've looked at suicide rates in Germany in police and they're higher than the general population.  We've looked at suicide rates in France, higher than the general population. South Africa, higher than the general population. So there's something about the police job, the police occupation, that really impinges on one's mental health," Violanti said.

He said Canadian Police can be especially isolated, leading to depression and ways to cope with that depression.

"The suicide problem among Canadian police was worse long before our was, especially groups like the RMCP, who have the entire country to police," said Violanti. "They get up in the rural areas, like the Yukon, there's no resources for help, there's no services. They're isolated, no people basically. You have one mountie for one county up in the Yukon. They have to take care of everything. So it's a difficult job and they're all alone and, when you isolate people, that's a risk for suicide."

Credit University at Buffalo
John Violanti has been working with the Buffalo Police Department on officer mental health since 2002.

Violanti said police officers can also feel isolated even among people.

"The sense of belongingness of being part of the rest of society is kind of disappearing because of negativity that's going on against police and because of isolated cases, where maybe the cop made a wrong decision and fired a wesapon or something like that, and the entire police force is getting blamed for that," he said.

Is there a difference between how male and female officers handle the daily stress of police work? Violanti's research found there is.

"Female officers seem to handle it better. I think they have better inner strength of dealing with adversity," he said. "Where a male cop would probably get in a confrontation with someone, a woman cop would probably talk it out. So they're better with negotiation. The problem women officers have is that they're a minority in police work and, because of that, they can experience some prejudice towards them."

So what can be done about the problem? Violanti said there is a "wellness movement" making its way through police departments that includes peer support programs.

"Peer support works well with police because there's not much trust with outside mental professionals," he said. "So they'd rather go to another police officer first with the problem and have that officer hook them up with someone they know they can trust."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News
Capt. Jeff Rinaldo has been a member of the Buffalo Police Department more than two decades.

"Absolutely there's a stigma. It becomes, 'Well, I'm not gonna reach out for help. I'm the helper,'" said John Petrullo, Director of the NYPD's Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance, or POPPA, program. "They should understand that it's a sign of strength when they're able to lift the phone up and say, 'Listen, I'm not feeling right. I've been through some things I need to talk about.' We're there as a compassion presence, to be there for them, to let them know we care."

But Rinaldo said that stigma is disappearing, as more research is conducted, assistance programs are created and conversations about mental health become more frequent and "normal."

"I've been on Buffalo PD now for over 21 years and 21 years ago, it's something that's never talked about, there was no training offered and, you know, you just saw really bad and horrible things and ya buried it deep inside and went about your day," Rinaldo said. "In the last decade or so, more research has been conducted and the more you know about a topic, the better decisions you can make and the better avenues are developed to deal with it. I think, today, the stigma behind wanting help, the stigma behind even talking about these things, is removed to a certain extent."

More with BPD Chief of Staff Capt. Jeff Rinaldo on the health of his officers

Violanti said peer support officers are trained in basic counseling and can discuss a problem confidentially, without the rest of the department being notified. He said another successful technique is mindfulness.

"That seems to be really gaining ground in police departments, where they're teaching officers the meditation process of mindfulness to deal with trauma," Violante said. "It's where they can get out of the past and get out of the future, when they're thinking about all these horrible things they've seen."

Perhaps most important is being proactive and "inoculating" officers at the academy level so they are more ready for the street after graduation.

"You know, back in the '50s and '60s, if you wanted to be a cop and didn't like, just leave. That was the idea," he said. "You know, the oldtime chief back in the '50s was, 'Go out and get 'em, guys. Don't worry about that. You'll get over it.' Now, we're gonna help, we're gonna get you through this."

If you know someone contemplating suicide, call the free and confidential 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifelineat 800-273-8255.