A few months ago, I was asked to speak at the NYPD/PERF Suicide Prevention Symposium. Tables were arranged in a U shape facing the front of the stage. The bottom of the “U” was the only forward-facing table, a front row seat to the discussion; an opportunity to listen, learn, and decide how to take action. NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill sat at that table with others on his staff. By noon, their seats were empty and remained that way for the rest of the day. Front row. Forward facing. A missed opportunity.
Earlier this week, Commissioner O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio used words like “reach out,” accepting help is a “sign of great strength” and “taking action.” Had Officer Michael Caddy died a traditional line of duty death, surely one of them would have attended the funeral as leaders of their city. A true leader would have attended Officer Caddy’s funeral yesterday. This was a moment to lead, a time for the Commissioner of the nation’s largest police department to truly lead not just speak. Another missed opportunity.
Imagine the statement Commissioner O’Neill’s attendance would have made. It would have been a bold step forward toward stigma reduction, a comfort to the families around the country who have lost an officer to suicide, and an unrivaled model of leadership in LE today.
Today, an officer showed up with a black band across his badge, his friend and co-worker had also died by suicide recently. He was told that black band is not for suicides, it is for “heroes”. Had Commissioner O’Neill stepped up, that “leader” may not have made that statement.
Where is our leadership? They are scattered throughout the country, they are making small steps, but they do not have the eye of the nation the way the NYPD does. My anger, frustration, and disappointment are at an all-time high today. To have that moment, to have that national stage to do something life-changing for so many officers and let it pass by without even a whisper, how can that happen? How? With 97 souls lost to suicide in LE, that we know of, how can you turn your back? Is the symbolism of the NYPD lost on Commissioner O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio? Their words earlier this week, they were just that, words. Like so many others. No action, just reports, commissions, recommendations, and meetings. Who is implementing these recommendations? Who is standing tall saying, “Yes, that officer and his family matter!”
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” – Rosalynn Carter
Who is taking law enforcement where they ought to be when it comes to suicide prevention? Where is the face and voice for these families? I can tell you where it’s not today, at the top of the NYPD, or other national law enforcement organizations who step forward willingly for LODD but hide from suicide. They aren’t at the events devoted to supporting the families, they weren’t at the Police Week dinner honoring the service of officers lost to suicide despite the hundreds of invitations sent out, they aren’t walking the children of these fallen officers to the first day of school and they aren’t taking them to Prom. They are silently waiting for someone else to take the risk.
How much longer are they going to wait? Ninety-seven suicides in 2019 to date. If we remove the fourteen retired officers (eight of them less than a year) we are still left with eighty-three active duty suicides. EIGHTY-THREE. Fifty-six officers have died in the line of duty, of those fifty-six, twenty-five were feloniously killed. The rest were accidents or heart attacks. Twenty-five killed, eighty-three suicides. Law enforcement officers are killing themselves three times more often than they are being killed by others. Where is our leader?
There will come a time when a leader will emerge; they will change the face of the culture, stigma, and budgeting. Money will not be wasted on administrative salaries discussing suicide, it will be spent on the programs; families will no longer hang their heads afraid to see the judgment and disappointment by their “blue family”; funerals will be flooded with a sea of blue and, no one will tell us that our suicide families “don’t belong at Police Week”. I look forward to shaking the hand of that leader.
In the meantime, thank the people around the country that are making a change. They are there; they reach out to us every day, they are making a change at their departments, they simply don’t have the platform of the NYPD to allow their actions to truly speak louder than the hollow words we continue to hear.