The Killer You Never See: Police Are Dying by Suicide More Often Than in the Line of Duty — Why?
What Mark DiBona remembers, even now, is the stench.
Burnt flesh is not easy to describe, not unlike meat or leather, roasted and rotted, and it is not easy to forget. It’s a smell you can’t stop tasting.
In the days immediately following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, DiBona, a Boston native then working as a sheriff’s sergeant in Florida, was one of thousands who traveled to New York City to assist in the recovery and clean-up. Eighteen years later, he says he’s still struck by the first responders who said they wished they could have done more for their friends.
But it was the burnt flesh surrounding him — so much death — that followed him home.
The smell lingered after his three weeks of volunteer work and beyond the boundaries of ground zero. Back in Orlando, returning to work at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, he responded to the scene of a vehicle fire, which had trapped someone inside.
“As soon as I walked up there, I smelt that smell and it really triggered me,” DiBona tells PEOPLE now. He remembers racing thoughts: “Oh my god, I have to do something.”
But the car was engulfed. There was nothing he could do. Rattled, DiBona later spoke with a few colleagues who brushed him off, who he says told him, “It’s no big deal, it’s just part of being a cop.” Instead, the homicide cases he worked, the sexual abuse, the elderly abuse, the child abuse, all “started to take a toll on me,” he says. “It was very difficult to accept that that was happening.”
He had also started smelling burnt flesh in his sleep and he would wake to the horrific stench, miles away from New York City.
The dead called out for him in his nightmares, in which he saw himself back at the site of the fallen towers, voices rising from the rubble. They did not ask for anyone else. “They were saying, ‘Help Mark. Mark, help me.’ ”
What was he to do? DiBona says that, during all of this, he struggled at work with a new and demeaning boss and worried that, if he sought help, he would be found unfit for duty. He gained a significant amount of weight. He avoided his wife.
In the spring of 2008, while he was at a local fire station, a woman rushed to him for help with her 4-month-old who wasn’t breathing. DiBona tried and tried, but his CPR did not save the baby.
At the hospital, “I had to go out to the parents and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ “ he says. “I was literally shaking in the room, crying.” He grew nauseous and vomited. The next day at work, his boss told him to “toughen up,” DiBona says.
The baby began appearing in the nightmares that still plagued him. The child would be in his mailbox and at his kitchen table, lifeless. He would find himself in his cruiser and the baby would be next to him, “talking to me, saying, ‘Why didn’t you save me? Why’d you let me die?’ “
It was only a few months later, October of that year, when DiBona decided to die. He didn’t pull the trigger — but if he had, he would have been one of the dozens of law enforcement officers who kill themselves every year, haunted and hopeless. In many departments, suicide is a likelier killer than the line of duty.
DiBona lived. Today, he travels around the country educating other officers on how to keep living, too.
In what New York City police are calling a crisis, a cluster of officer suicides there earlier this year put a new spotlight on the issue as Congress moved forward with a mental-health funding bill to help prevent more deaths. (Two more officers killed themselves this week.) President Donald Trump signed the Supporting and Treating Officers in Crisis Act, or STOIC Act, into law in July.
“There’s people out there that love you and want to help you. But unless you come forward, unless your partner says something, or friend, we’re not gonna know,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill told CBS.
“Suicide is the No. 1 killer of law enforcement,” DiBona says. “The general public probably doesn’t know that, and I think every agency should be addressing these issues.”
‘The Nature of the Job’
As of Aug. 1, 114 officers have killed themselves in the United States in 2019 — up 24 percent in reported suicides from last year, according to the police suicide prevention group Blue H.E.L.P. The same group reports that, in 2018, while 153 officers died in the line of duty 163 officers died by suicide, making it the leading cause of death for the profession.
Historical trends are harder to perceive: Unlike on-duty deaths, police suicides aren’t tracked by any government agency, with outside groups such as Blue H.E.L.P. gathering information independently.
The available statistics on officer suicides may not even tell the full story. Suicide reporting has become more accurate as autopsy standards have tightened, but John Violanti, a police stress expert and University at Buffalo professor, tells PEOPLE that some suicides are likely still mischaracterized “for the protection of the officer and sometimes for the family.”
This is not a new phenomenon though. A 1991 clip from The New York Times describes police suicide as a “delicate topic” and notes that between 1986 and 1990, 34 New York officers killed themselves, double the number in that department who had died in the line of duty during the same period.
Distilling these statistics into generalizations is difficult. While mental illness is a common contributor, suicides are generally the result of multiple factors interacting in complex ways.
Experts say the extreme stress many officers face wears them down, leading to (and then perpetuating) problems with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. What for many people would be a single traumatic experience can be daily for law enforcement, whose jobs regularly require them to be involved in the worst parts of a person’s life: abused children, drug overdoses, domestic violence, murder.
It’s “all the horrible things they’ll see that the people in other occupations will never see,” Violanti explains. “They really prey on the psyche, and eventually over time the accumulation stress caused by these events can cause an inability to cope.”
But to many, it’s just “the nature of the job,” Violanti says.
DiBona describes another stress in his own experience — brought on by the increased scrutiny on all police after several high-profile incidents in recent years in which officers acted wrongfully, sometimes killing unarmed citizens. In a rare but striking anecdote, he remembers having dinner with another deputy. “This [other] guy walks up to the table,” DiBona says. “He puts a penny on the table and says, ‘That’s what I think of you guys. Everyday when I hear about cops being killed, I laugh my ass off. Have a safe shift, officers.’ ”
Suicide rates have been rising more broadly in the last decade, Violanti says. Officers are not immune to the same social and psychological forces affecting others.
Suicidal crises — the moment someone decides to jump or pull the trigger or swallow a fistful of pills — can be overcome with intervention, experts stress. But in this, too, police often suffer: The larger law enforcement culture has been slower to provide health outlets for struggling officers. They bottle it up instead, or they drink.
“If I go tell somebody, they’re going to think I’m crazy and I don’t want to be labeled,” DiBona says of his decision to conceal his issues from his agency.
Officers are distinct in another way: Their method of suicide is often the readily available firearms that surround them for work. The four New York City Police Department officers that killed themselves in June all used their department-issued weapons, The New York Times reported.
Off-duty officers who are at risk could have their guns locked up, as a policy solution, but that has its own perils.
“Removing the firearm is a symbolic way of saying, ‘You just lost you identity as a police officer,’ ” which can be even more detrimental to an officer’s health, Violanti says. The fear of being added to the “rubber gun squad,” or becoming an officer without a weapon, also adds to the hesitancy to reach out for help.
Violanti says the refusal to address the mental health toll of policing is systematic. “It’s been a subject of denial, if you will, all these years because officers and administration don’t want to talk about it,” he says. “You know there’s a part of the police culture which sort of dictates that officers cannot be weak, cannot have problems, because they feel it’s going to affect their work.”
“In the old days, you couldn’t show any weakness,” retired Chicago police Sgt. John “Red” Healy told the Chicago Tribune this year. Healy’s son Ryan, also a Chicago police officer, killed himself in 2013, and his family began speaking out to spotlight the challenges other first responders also faced.
“God forbid you said you were afraid,” Healy told the Tribune, describing the workplace culture about dealing with stress and trauma. “Others wouldn’t want to work with you. But now they’ve finally recognized they’ve got a problem.”
A STOIC Solution
The STOIC Act allots 7.5 million dollars each year through 2024 to fund mental health grants for law enforcement. The legislation was originally sponsored in the Senate by Missouri’s Josh Hawley and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse.
“Police officers are heroes, and they deserve the same level of help and support that they provide to our communities every day,” Hawley tells PEOPLE in a statement. “This legislation proves that, even in these divided times, legislators working across the aisle can find real solutions to our nation’s problems.”
The law directs funding for both police support and their families, but at the discretion and need of individual agencies seeking to provide resources for their own officers. Including relatives is key, Whitehouse says, as they are “very likely … to be the first to notice and maybe even call the chief and say, “Hey, my spouse seems a little stressed is everything okay, I’m a little worried, or what can we do?’ ”
That kind of proactivity is important, according to Violanti, the stress expert, who says mental illness and suicide prevention training must start happening at the beginning of an officer’s career.
Training “has to make the impression that you [the officer] are going to experience these things, so get ready,” he says. “Young people coming on to police work today have never experienced violence, have never seen a dead body, have never dealt with abused kids. … It’s a reality shock when they get on the street, so they need to get ready for this.”
Once an officer starts working, based on his own experience, DiBona believes there should also be access to peer support groups and annual mental health checkups. He acknowledges that “cops are good bullshitters and they know what to say” when they talk to a mental health provider, but professionals can often discern when something is wrong.
There is a lot of paranoia associated with talking to therapists and social workers, so confidential peer support groups and advisers are other alternatives.
Sen. Whitehouse tells PEOPLE: “It’s actually going to take a fair amount of law enforcement support to make sure that people feel comfortable using the services because, again, there is a stoic quality to the men and women in uniform.”
‘I Took Out My Gun and I Said a Prayer’
DiBona grew up in an Italian family in Boston’s North End, a diehard Red Sox fan and a diehard fan of his mom’s cooking. He was only 20 when he graduated from a police academy in the Boston area and decided that he wanted to be a cop for the rest of his life.
He headed south to Florida, where he spent the majority of his career with the sheriff’s office in Orlando. He retired in March.
He’s a big guy, a self-described “alpha male.” Not the type of person you’d expect to share his feelings.
But share he does: Now 55, DiBona spends his retirement working for Blue H.E.L.P., the suicide prevention group, for whom he travels around the country talking about himself, about how to get help and about how to destigmatize mental health issues among law enforcement.
“Anytime somebody needs help with anything, as far as mental health goes, I’ll jump out of bed for somebody to help them, and I have,” DiBona says.
Back at home, he spends time with his wife, Gailyn, and their two dogs. But he’s the first to admit that he wasn’t always doing this well.
On Oct. 24, 2008, at perhaps his lowest point, DiBona came very close to death. Worn down and pulled apart by his job and his boss (who had recently given him a “horrible, horrible evaluation”) and his unhealthy coping habits, “I started feeling really worthless,” he says.
“What I mean by ‘worthless’ — like what purpose do I have in life right now? I felt like a complete failure at my job, at my marriage, in my personal life,” he continues. “I felt like failure was written across my forehead.”
He’d finally discussed his mental health with some colleagues, but he says they belittled him while others refused to work alongside him.
So one night on the job, he headed to an empty industrial park and planned to take his own life.
Sitting in his cruiser, he began writing a suicide note: On one side was a message to his department — who he felt had failed to help him — and the other side was for his wife and mother. His words for his supervisor were “a lot of hate,” he says, but the other half begged for forgiveness and understanding from his family.
Placing the the letter in a plastic covering that he hung from the review mirror, DiBona sat back and started to pray. As a Catholic, he believed suicide was a sin. But struggling as he was, he also wasn’t sure that God was listening anyway.
“I took my gun out and I said a prayer and I decided that was the night I was going to die by suicide,” he says.
Pulling the trigger slowly — afraid to do it too fast — “that’s when the other cop showed up,” he says.
DiBona angrily told the other officer, a subordinate, to leave. He was going to shoot himself, he said, “So if you want to watch, go ahead and watch.” But the concerned officer’s interruption saved him. He called in sick, returned home and, though still suicidal, worried about leaving his body for his wife to find.
Things weren’t perfect after that night, but they got better. Even as he kept secret what happened in his cruiser, DiBona voluntarily sought treatment.
A month after deciding to kill himself, he moved to a new department in the sheriff’s office and away from his boss.
Diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD, he started taking medication (“The first time my wife gave me my psyche meds, that horrible [thought] crossed my mind that only crazy people take pills,” he says) and bounced from therapist to therapist, but eventually he found an ex-cop who he has now been seeing for several years.
He says he hasn’t thought about suicide since. Some of his coping skills include acknowledging that he can’t control everything and encouraging himself to do the things that he enjoys, such as making his mom’s lasagna recipe or getting lunch with retired buddies.
Working with Blue H.E.L.P., one of his missions now is telling his story and hoping others in law enforcement will hear it.
He does four presentations a month, across the country, and he still gets some officers who will downplay the severity of their problems. They say suicide only “crosses their minds,” but DiBona always asks, “Did you take out your gun?”
The answer is often yes.
Talking to police who are struggling as he has, he says, “I’ve had about 10 officers say, ‘You saved my life.’ So it cheers me up when I think about it. I say to them, ‘You saved your own life.’ ”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.