Researchers have sounded alarms for years about the increasing number of police officers dying by suicide.
In fact, studies by the Ruderman Family Foundation in 2018 and 2022 found that police officers and firefighters have a greater chance of dying by suicide than in the line of duty.
Despite the concerning trend, little was being done to address what some have deemed a crisis. Police officers would refuse to seek treatment out of fear of embarrassment and stigmatization.
Being the scenes, efforts are underway to chip away at the stigma surrounding mental health and police officers
A group of Christ-centered clergy and law enforcement officers has stepped up to fill some of the void, and their work is beginning to inspire other agencies to act.
“I mean, it’s hit our backyards,” said Dave Budz, executive director of OpOverwatch, referring to a spate of local law enforcement suicides over the past five years.
Founded in 2019, the nonprofit offers moral support, trauma resiliency training, and other services to law enforcement officers in the region.
Budz, a retired F.B.I. agent, said police officers average 188 traumatic events during a career. Whereas, most people might face one or two in their lifetimes.
This pain and suffering takes a mental toll on police officers, but they rarely get the necessary time off to process the trauma, unlike if they got physically injured on the job.
“But if an officer deals with the suicide of a teenager, and now he’s having nightmares, and he’s struggling with it, and he’s reacting in ways that [aren’t] normal to him, he doesn’t talk about it,” Budz said. “It’s the same thing. It’s stress from the job. It’s trauma from the job. But yet because it’s in the brain, we have this stigma not to talk about it.”
In 2022, FBI data shows that law enforcement agencies reported 32 suicides. This was the first year the FBI released law enforcement suicide data, and the agency cautioned that only a limited number of agencies responded.
Researchers reported that the number of police officers who died by suicide tripled in both 2020 and 2021.
“Trauma is going to happen on the job,” Budz said. “And it’s expected on the job. So, the stress will come from that. The trauma resiliency is building a life where you have an identity that isn’t wrapped up in just the singular identity of the badge.”
Steve Ritchie, a retired Lockport police officer, said he reached rock bottom 20 years ago, after being shot in the line of duty. The stress and trauma created chaos for him.
“I’ve been there,” Ritchie said. “I’ve been at the bottom of the pit where I was like ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m done’.”
Then, Ritchie said he had a spiritual revelation that ending his life would not end the suffering. That experience led him to Budz and OpOverwatch.
“I’ve been through it all and I survived through it, and you can survive through it, too,” Ritchie said.
Budz said the early success of his group is beginning to encourage other departments to take action.
The Town of Amherst Police Department recently launched an officer wellness program to help officers process the emotional turmoil the job brings.
Amherst Police Detective Mark Pitirri said eight to 10 officers meet periodically to talk about the stresses of their jobs and lives. The message he said they try to convey is that it is normal for someone to feel depressed by tragedy.
“People say it’s just normal, you should be able to handle that,” Pitirri said. “Well, at some point somebody might not be able to handle that. So, we’re trying to, in some aspect, teach everybody [how] to handle it.”
The meetings are confidential. Pitirri said details divulged by police officers are not even shared with superiors, which he and others credit as a key factor in building a successful program.
In this program, Pitirri said no officer should feel paranoid that their peers might look at them differently for seeking help.
“And I give kudos to our chief and our administration for allowing us to do that and kind of be the lead dog on this thing departmentwide,” he said.
Detective Samantha Kozlowski said more than 100 officers also signed up for voluntary wellness training to discuss topics that she said are generally “taboo in police culture.”
The number of attendees was a bright sign that more police officers seem willing to get help in a confidential setting, without fear that it might lead to them appearing weak by superiors.
“And once they realize that it is okay to talk about these things, I think we’ve seen the floodgates kind of open up,” Kozlowski said. “When people start talking about the things they’re struggling with, that’s when we can start to heal from it.”
Luke Moretti is an award-winning investigative reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2002. See more of his work here.