HARTFORD, CT — Four. That’s the number of police officers in Connecticut who have taken their own lives over the past seven months.
And that’s only the number a group of law enforcement officers at the state Capitol Tuesday to testify knew about. There’s no data on police suicide collected by the state. The Federal Bureau of Investigations collections information about deaths in the line of duty, but not suicide.
James Rascati, a clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at Yale University, said he’s personally dealt with the suicides of seven officers over the past 15 years.
“It’s one of the most devastating events any law enforcement agency can experience,” Rascati said.
Ron Mercado, an officer from Bridgeport, said his department still struggles daily with the recent suicide of one of its officers on Dec. 4.
“It’s difficult to focus when you’re still thinking to yourself whether you could have gotten him some more help,” Mercado said. “It doesn’t get any easier.”
One of the barriers to treatment the officers are looking to the General Assembly this year to resolve was adopted as part of the landmark 2013 legislation banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines post-Sandy Hook.
The bill the officers are supporting would carve out an exemption for law enforcement and allow them to get their service weapon back even if they sought mental health treatment. At the moment, no matter who you are in Connecticut, if you voluntarily check yourself into an in-patient mental health facility you get your firearms taken away for six months.
An involuntary admission to a psychiatric hospital will cost any Connecticut resident their gun permit for 60 months.
Middletown Detective Derek Puorro said if an officer knows they’re going to have their service weapon taken from them for up to five years, “they won’t seek treatment.”
Research has shown officers are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide and have life spans that are 10 years shorter than members of the general public, he added.
Rascati said police officers don’t want to lose their livelihood, so they simply won’t seek treatment.
Even though alcohol and drug treatment are exempted, Rascati said he sends his clients to Pennsylvania or Vermont because if they are admitted in Connecticut with a substance abuse problem and it’s later determined the officer is self-medicating due to depression, then they would likely trigger the 2013 law.
He said he sends them out of state so they can keep their jobs.
“I don’t want them to risk their permit,” Rascati said.
He said they raised the issue back in 2013 when the legislation was being debated and now they’re giving the General Assembly a chance to fix it.
“As a society we should want our officers seeking mental health treatment and not put obstacles in their path,” Rascati said.
The bill also supports the development of police peer support teams. Rascati said officers rather talk to each other than to him. He said peer support often opens the door to mental health treatment for officers who need it.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, submitted written testimony that questions the wisdom of exempting police officers and no other gun permit holder.
“While we respect the hard work of our sworn officers across the state, we believe it would be in the best interest if this bill were modified to include all seeking the issuance or renewal of a permit to carry a pistol or revolver, an eligibility certificate for pistols or revolvers, or an eligibility certificate for long arms,” Wilson wrote. “Essentially, if this legislation is good enough for police officers, it should good enough for all applicants.”
But law enforcement says they’re different.
Stamford Police Sgt. Kris Engstrand said the job has changed since 9/11. Instead of just responding to traffic violations or drugs ‘it’s bigger.”
He said local police are being asked to be homeland security. “We’re not military, but we’re paramilitary and we are the front line within our own borders,” he said.
In addition, “it’s what are you doing to protect our kids in schools,” he said. “Twenty years ago we didn’t even talk about police officers in schools.”
And it’s even bigger than that. “It’s how do you as an officer plan to save my life,” Engstrand said.
He said the 2013 law has stopped police officers from coming forward and seeking help.
He said the data collection about police suicide and peer support teams that are part of the legislation will also help.
Naugatuck Officer Rebecca St. George said she’s only been on the job three years and knows statistically the loss of Robert “Tommy” Byrne to suicide in November may have been her first, but won’t be her last.
“During my training to be a police officer I learned how to save a fellow officer from a gunshot or stab wound, to prevent the bleeding until help could arrive,” St. George said. “In Tommy’s case, his coworkers saw his battle with depression, but didn’t know how to effectively help him.”
A fundraiser for Byrne’s son, Tyler, will be held on April 7 at the Elks Club in Naugatuck.
Tyler was the focus in Byrne’s last note, which St. George shared with the Public Safety Committee Tuesday.
“Tell Tyler I’m sorry. I love him immensely too. I’m being left in the mud and I can’t pick myself back up. My depression is too great and it would rub off on Ty. I don’t want him to have to continue to see me in this uncontrollable state. He’s young enough to get over the memory of me and will be okay without me. I’ve tried medications, but nothing is stopping the bleeding of my broken heart. I’m sorry I failed my family”.
The Public Safety and Security Committee has until March 20 to forward the legislation to the state Senate.