Boston police Commissioner William Gross on Friday said that one of his highest priorities is preventing the leading cause of death among officers — suicide.
“A lot of people don’t know that officers are facing tough times,” the commissioner said in a speech hosted by Friends of the Boston Police. “We’re not going anywhere. We’re fighters, and we will serve you. But the No. 1 cause of death for officers in the United States is by their own hands.
“Last year we lost seven officers and almost another eight to heart attacks,” Gross said. Although he was discussing the topic of police suicide, he later declined to elaborate on the causes of death of the seven officers, citing privacy concerns. A BPD spokesman also declined to say how many Boston police officers have committed suicide.
“Seemingly, everyone thinks we’re robotic, that nothing affects us, that everything rolls off our backs,” Gross said in his speech. “That is not the case. We have families, too. We have problems, too, post-traumatic stress, one of the highest suicide rates in the country.”
In Massachusetts, the number of officers who killed themselves was at least 10 in 2016, eight each in 2017 and 2018, and one so far this year, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a Worcester-based not-for-profit that helps surviving family members and gathers data from them and from their co-workers and departments. Nationally, there have been at least 79 officer suicides this year, nearly double the 43 line-of-duty deaths, said Karen Solomon, Blue H.E.L.P.’s president.
Last September, the Boston Police Department worked with the Greater Boston Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to observe National Suicide Prevention Week, distributing wallet brochures with information about the risk factors for suicide and where to get help. Police also wore “remembrance and awareness bands” on their badges to honor officers lost to suicide and to promote prevention.
Some departments still deny victims honors at their funerals and their families benefits, said Solomon, who co-founded Blue H.E.L.P. in 2016 because of such treatment. Some departments even go so far as to bar the victim’s colleagues from wearing their uniforms to the funeral and force them to take vacation or personal days to attend, she said.
“It’s that whole stigma that suicide is a cowardly way out, that the officer should have just sucked up everything he was exposed to on a daily basis,” she said. “They wash their hands of him, even though he fought just as valiantly as others in the line of duty, if not more so.”
Care of Police Suicide Survivors founder Janice McCarthy’s husband was a Massachusetts State Police captain in 2006 when he committed suicide after undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He was 44.
“Nobody on the force really knew how to handle it,” McCarthy said. “When I went to the barracks a few weeks later to pick up his things, they slid a paper bag containing his badge and wallet under the front window. They didn’t really even want to talk to me.”
After that, McCarthy founded Care of Police Suicide Survivors to help other victims’ families. Today, she trains officers around the country on how to handle trauma. She also has helped craft a bill pending before the state Legislature that requires officers to receive training.