There have been two suspected deaths by suicide in the Buffalo Police Department, another in the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and a fourth in the Southtowns – all occurring since late last year.
Mental health and police experts say the number is alarming and is likely the result of an array of issues, ranging from the erosion of public support for police brought on by the nation’s racial reckoning after the police killing of George Floyd to working on the frontlines in the Covid-19 pandemic.
On top of that, they say, police work is known to have a higher number of suicides than other jobs because of the trauma law enforcement personnel frequently witness and a resistance to seeking help because of an unjustified stigma attached to mental illness.
“Police have been dealing with riots and political strife and at the same time dealing with Covid-19 and trying to avoid it,” said Dr. John M. Violanti, a research professor in the University at Buffalo's School of Public Health and Health Professions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest statistics, Violanti said, estimate that there is a 54% higher likelihood that police officers could die by suicide than others in the general working population.
Mayor Byron Brown has said he does not support defunding the police department but remains in “strong favor” favor of reforming it.
“The stress of the job lends a lot of credence to that statistic,” said Violanti, who is also a retired New York State trooper and the author of “Occupation Under Seige: Resolving the Mental Health Crisis in Police Work,” a book that will be released in the fall.
Also this fall, a nationally recognized expert on police suicides – an officer who had planned to take his own life in 2008 – will conduct two presentations that are free and open to all members of local law enforcement.
Cindy Goss, one of the organizers of the talks and president of Catch a Falling Star Law Enforcement Assistance Program, said the biggest obstacle for officers in need of help is overcoming the stigma attached to mental health issues.
“Stigma plays a major role in why officers don’t reach out for help. The stigma indicates they are weak and not strong. There’s also fear of people finding out they have personal problems,” Goss said.
Chris Prochut, a former Chicago area police officer who will give the talks, said he lost his job after he was hospitalized just days before he planned to take his own life.
A cop’s journey to stability
Prochut said he had been serving as the public information officer at the Bolingbrook Police Department in 2007 when a news story threw him and the department into the national spotlight.
It involved Sgt. Drew Peterson and the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. Peterson’s first two marriages had ended in divorce and his third wife had died from drowning in the bathtub – a finding that would later be changed to homicide and put Peterson behind bars for decades.
Accusations that the police department was attempting to protect a rogue cop went on for months, Prochut said, along with a barrage of media inquiries and the job of helping to solve the mysterious disappearance of Stacy Peterson.
“I was trying to protect the department, my second family. We have a bad apple here. It was Sgt. Peterson, not a reflection of the department,” Prochut said. “I put a lot on my shoulders. I’d tell myself, ‘Chris you’re the press guy. My job’s my life. If I fail at my job, I fail at my life. How do you come back from that?’ ”
Prochut said he finally reached the breaking point.
“I had tried therapy and medication and it wasn’t working. I decided to end my life on May 1, 2008, with a firearm," he said. "It was going to be in a neighboring town in a wooded area so that my own department wouldn’t have to investigate my suicide.”
His plan was thwarted by his wife, he said.
“Luckily she picked up on the subtle cues. She made a call to my department and said she feared I would end my life. My officers came to my house and took me against my will to the hospital,” said Prochut, who held the rank of commander.
The result was he lost his job because he could no longer carry a gun, but the intervention saved his life.
What were the signs his wife detected?
“I was charged and energized at work, then at home I’d isolate. We had two young children, and that’s supposed to be a happy time. I’d just go upstairs and lay in bed and watch the overhead fan blades and try and shut out the 40,000 things in my head,” he said.
The law in Illinois that banned him from carrying a gun because of his deteriorated mental health has since been repealed, Prochut said. But he chose not to return to police work. He instead found a new life working as an investigator in loss prevention for a department store chain.
He also realized his experience in nearly killing himself could be turned into a positive to help other cops. His two-hour presentation, “Taking Care of Our Own,” focuses on spotting signs of mental health difficulties, what to do when you spot them and highlighting resources.
Talking it out
Talk, Prochut said, is the best medicine.
“When you start talking to other cops, they’ll say, ‘Dude, I feel the same way.’ Then you don’t feel so alone. It sounds so simple, but it is so hard because cops will not reach out for help. So sometimes we have to reach in,” Prochut said.
Goss said training officers for a peer assistance program can be a major resource.
“Peer support is a critical intervention,” she said. “Police will reach out to a peer before going to the employee assistance program or a psychologist.”
In addition, Goss said every police agency in the region should require its members to be trained in "stress inoculation" and suicide awareness.
She and Erie County Undersheriff John W. Greenan are finalizing times and locations for Prochut’s presentations Nov. 12 and Nov. 13. Members of law enforcement interested in attending can contact Goss at 435-4895.