Editor’s Note: Malcolm Reiman is a retired New York City Police Department detective, who served over 31 years on the force, with 21 of those years working in the Bronx Homicide Squad. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Being a New York City Police Department detective has been the greatest job in the world. It’s why I gave more than 31 years of my life to it. I spent that time identifying and apprehending murderers. And what greater calling can there be than giving justice to the dead and comfort to the loved ones left behind? Of course, I only did this working side by side with my courageous partners, squad members and bosses in the NYPD.
However, this kind of service comes at a cost. Cops see unspeakable horrors – the worst things that human beings can do to each other– and yet must strive to lead semi-normal lives.
Now, following a recent wave of suicides that have claimed the lives of three members of the city’s police department, many are left wondering – why is this happening? And what can we do to prevent future tragedies?
To understand the struggle of these men, it’s worth giving you some background on what it really means to be a New York City detective.
For the average person, an upsetting day involves coming out of work to discover a scratch on your fender. For a cop, it’s seeing a beautiful seven-month-old baby boy who has been beaten to death by his mother’s new boyfriend.
You may be able to forget the scratch on your car, but the cop will never forget the scene of that crime. And he or she will see many more variations of that nightmarish scene over the course of a career.
But the violence isn’t always limited to civilians. Over the course of three decades, two of my partners were shot; two of my sergeants were shot; and many others I served with were shot, badly injured – and sometimes killed. This is the reality of being a police officer. The danger is constant and unforgiving. The strain can be as well.
Cops may subsequently suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder – much like our military personnel who serve overseas in combat zones. But unlike the military, where there is increasing awareness (though there is still much work to do) on the issue, there is little recognition of the violence that police officers see and process each day. And, according to a recent Department of Justice article, approximately 15% of American police officers experience PTSD.
However, cops, to put it simply, are expected to be the tough guys. Whether there are gang members shooting up the street or an emotionally disturbed naked man is waving a meat clever, cops are expected to run toward the danger. That’s our job. It’s what the public expects from us – and it’s what we expect from each other.
We are the ones who are expected to be cool and calm when the world is coming apart. But when we are always expected to show our strength, how and when can we let our guard down and ask for help?
Of course, the police department itself does a lot, with members at the highest levels reaching out to help. The department focuses on suicide awareness during its semi-annual training. And posters are prominently displayed at police precincts across the city, listing the counseling services that are available.
The unions do their best, too. The Detectives Endowment Association, of which I am a member, treats its people like family. The board and delegates are always there for its members, day and night. There are organizations, peer groups and phone lines to contact. Organizations like Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance provide 24-hour a day support that is confidential and free.
And yet we continue to fall.
Having a loaded pistol on your hip all the time makes a suicide so much easier to carry out. It makes it easier to act on an impulse.
If a cop is found to be a danger to him or herself, the department will remove that officer’s firearms for safekeeping. The department is known to err on the side of caution in these matters, and the reason is understandable. What supervisors would want to live with the fact that they had the opportunity to prevent a tragic suicide and failed to do so.
That said, for the department to remove a firearm, it has to be aware of a problem. And there is an uncomfortable stigma surrounding being “rubber gunned” or “placed in the rubber gun squad” – police slang for having your gun removed. But there should be no shame in being in pain. So, if we want to start to address this issue, let’s start by removing this stigma.
Of course, doing so will take time. A doctor who works with abused children recently told me that for people who work in high-stress environments and are exposed to daily horrors, suicide is a job hazard – not a deficiency in the employee. And I agree.
These New York cops were not deficient in any sense of the definition. They were great cops – and I can personally attest to this, having known two of the men who died as heroes. One of them saved my life 30 years ago, when a man brandishing a large knife attempted to stab me. I was on uniformed patrol in the Bronx and was in a struggle, seeking to arrest a man wanted for a robbery. A member of the robber’s family tried to prevent the arrest by attempting to stab me in the back. Before he was able to do so, the sergeant at the time stopped him.
I wished I could have returned the favor a few days ago.
Sadly, the years of exposure to violence, stress, danger and death can kill our police just as surely as a criminal’s bullet or knife. Life’s usual problems can be magnified by the pressures of daily police work.
We always support each other if we notice a problem. But we have to notice it. Since we view cops as family, sometimes we need to make more of an effort to notice. We do that by posting messages for each other on social media that say, “Talk to me.” And, day to day, we can push just a little harder to ask if someone is alright.
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We also need to concentrate on the subtle – the look in the eye, the change in demeanor. And we need to listen to ideas and information from outside the department as well. Mental health professionals, clergy and anyone else who can bring something to the table. If one small idea saves a life, then it was immense in its power.
In short, we need to renew our efforts from within and from without.
I am not a policy maker. But I am a retired homicide detective who has been around the block a couple of times. I would respectfully say that if there are cops in your life, check in on them once in a while. Those cops signed up for this job, and we should all be thankful they did. They looked out for us. We need to do the same for them.
As for the cops, I say, hang in there my brothers and sisters. There are better days ahead. You’re too tough to let go now. Reach out and talk to someone – a friend, a partner, a voice on a helpline. The criminals haven’t killed you. Don’t let this sadness kill you either. We are blessed to have you in our lives. Please don’t go away.