News recently broke about the seventh apparent suicide among NYPD’s sworn police force this year. While families, friends, and colleagues mourn, grapple for understanding, and wrestle with questions that will likely never be answered, the public watches from the outside with almost no understanding of what went wrong. What IS wrong. I still contend that most everyone in the public holds no malice for cops and wishes us no harm. A small percentage wishes us dismissed, harmed, or dead; an even smaller part of the population understands what officers go through on any given shift.
That smaller part is us. Cops.
I have a two-sided relationship with suicide. I believe personal autonomy and basic civil rights allow mankind the legal ability to end their life on their terms and at the time of their choosing; I also, conversely, believe that our society should collectively do all reasonably possible to ensure such decisions are not made from depression, despair, or temporary problems that any superficial remedy as simple as time or money will solve.
In my opinion, there is no way for me to effectively explain what it means to be a cop. I would defer to far greater writers and orators like Paul Harvey and Theodore Roosevelt to explain, but, even such luminaries fall short. Wearing a badge is at once the greatest and worst job I’ve ever had. It’s been the source of some of my best and most terrible days, decisions, and actions. I think it might be something like a combat vet trying to explain their overseas warfare experiences, but with the added dichotomy that I’m living outside the wire and Green Zones don’t exist.
During the entirety of my police career, I carried multiple weapons at all times. I don’t say that as an exaggeration. At. All. Times. If you saw me in anything but pjs, I had a blade. If outside my house, I also had a firearm and an extra mag. Going to the grocer for a bag of hotdog buns? Not without Roscoe. Mowing the front lawn? Not without Roscoe. Quick three-mile run? You guessed it. The only thing that terrifies me more than unexpected violence and ambush is being unprepared for it. Like most of my colleagues, I didn’t believe I ever really went “off-duty” and turned responsibility for myself and my surroundings over to the guys on-shift. The chronic stress of perpetual vigilance takes its toll. Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, a retired cop from the Pima County (AZ) Sheriff’s Office, coined the term “emotional rollercoaster.” I believe it’s the best explanation for what our life looks like.
In a short paraphrase, the cop starts getting dressed and ready for work, which corresponds to the elevated hormones and biochemistry of a rising coaster (adrenaline, hypervigilance). Once the cop comes back home, that coaster falls down to its trough (depression). If you exercise and get enough sleep, your body resets. Then it’s off to work again. Most of the police force doesn’t exercise enough, sleep enough, or eat right; many work too much overtime to make ends meet. Thus, no actual reset. Lather, rinse, repeat, week in and week out for 20-25 years. Few of us take a long enough vacation to come back to the job refreshed, renewed, and happy to be there.
Does that make us special? Do cops deserve happiness at work? Few people in our societies have such an existence. I would like to point out, though, that few others have sworn to endanger themselves to protect and serve strangers who might hate them, wish them dead, or actively assault them. Few have to trust their training and coworkers with their physical safety and lifeblood. Few have the legal authority to make life-and-death decisions and lawfully restrict the rights and movements of those around them. Few see their professional failures as akin to eternal damnation. Therein lies the rub, in my humble opinion.
In our world, as cops, we have to be right. All of us, and each of us, all right, all the time, with no exception. We have legal discretion to solve problems in our own manner, so long as we act legally, morally, and safely, but we routinely love to criticize anyone who sees the world differently. Cliques emerge in departments, much like high school, and your professional life soon revolves around them: what shift you bid and hope to work, who you try to work alongside, what colleagues and supervisors you want to avoid. This, of course, isn’t the experience of every cop in every department, but, I assure you, it is at least similar to the experience of every one I know personally.
I don’t know the circumstances of the NYPD suicides this year, and I don’t have a right to pry into them, even if I intend a productive reason for it. I do know that, for the last few years, more American cops have died by their own hand than at those of the assailants. Regardless of the agency, the color of uniform, or shape of the badge or shield, I venture that a unique component of police suicide is that paradigm I brought up: damnation. From Minute One, Hour One, Day One of the police academy, cops are taught that their personal failures endanger far more than themselves; they jeopardize the public, their shift partners, and the family they left at home. Their mistakes will be the reason for their line of duty death, their spouse’s mourning, and their kids growing up with a hole in their heart. Worse, we never know how the smallest mistake will blow up into an unexpected, deadly consequence. Our fellow trainees are punished for our errors, which ingrains a harsh reality: when a cop behaves badly on the other side of the country, it tarnishes all our badges.
What does this mean to you, the public? Maybe it means you have an opportunity to help your local cops. If one stops you, you can start by just being pleasant. I’m not asking you to give up your rights, just don’t be an asshole. If you have the means, donate to organizations that help first responders and their families. There are some great organizations on my Donations page. If you have the time and the heart, volunteer. Every agency can benefit from your respective expertise, time, and effort. Many hands make light work, and we appreciate everyone who positively contributes to solving this problem.