Police seek solutions to high suicide rate
BRIDGEPORT — More than a year after Bridgeport Police Officer Thomas Lattanzio took his own life, Police Chief Armando Perez said he still wishes Lattanzio had confided in him.
Lattanzio died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. City cops had a moment of silence on the radio waves at 5 p.m. on Dec. 4, the first anniversary of his death, in his memory.
“To this day, I just don’t know why he didn’t just come up and talk to me,” Perez said.
Lattanzio had been on the force for 17 years. On Dec. 4, 2017, just one week shy of his 54th birthday, he drove a car to Seaside Park, parked across from the beach and shot himself.
“Tommy was a very special person,” Perez said. “He was not perfect, but he was a good man.”
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2017 study by the Ruderman Family Foundation, a private philanthropic foundation, found the suicide rate for the general population is 13 out of 100,000 and the rate for police officers is 17 out of 100,000.
Police are also more likely to kill themselves than to be killed on the job, one study found.
The Ruderman Family Foundation study showed that in 2017, 140 U.S. police officers committed suicide and 129 cops died in the line of duty. On average, the study said, cops witness 188 “critical incidents” during their careers.
That repeated exposure to trauma can lead to various mental health problems. Post-traumatic stress and depression rates among police officers have been found to be as much as five times higher than the rates among the civilian population, the study found.
“Being a police officer might be one of the most stressful jobs I can think of,” said Dr. Jeffrey Deitz, a psychiatrist on the faculty at Quinnipiac University’s medical school.
Deitz compared the stress of being a cop with that of a solider at war. He said that same fear of never knowing if they’ll make it home can lead to heightened anxiety for police officers and soldiers.
“It really is life and death,” Perez said of being a cop. “We depend on one another so that we can go home at the end of the shift.”
At the time of his death, Lattanzio was named in two lawsuits: one a foreclosure on his residence and one which claimed he used excessive force during an arrest at a party on Oct. 21, 2017. The second lawsuit prompted an internal investigation, which left Lattanzio on administrative status with the Bridgeport Police Department — meaning his badge and gun were taken away.
“He was a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he had a good heart,” Perez said, though he did not specifically address either lawsuit. “He believed in protecting the city of Bridgeport and protecting the good people who live here.”
Legal trouble can burden an officer.
“At war, you might shoot someone as part of your job and you don’t necessarily worry about if that person’s family is going to sue you. But as a cop, that’s a very real fear, and a lawsuit can affect your whole department,” Deitz said.
Perez said the department works hard to ensure all officers are in good mental health standing.
“We are very vigilant,” he said. “If we even suspect that one of our officers is having a problem, we intervene. We’re proactive. We let them know that we’re a family and that we take care of one another.”
Police Sgt. Chuck Paris, the police union president, said most officers will talk to others on the force when they feel they need an outlet.
“The brothers and the sisters that they work with are probably one of the best resources,” he said.
If that’s not enough, Paris said, officers have the Employee Assistance Program — a year-round program that provides help to police officers at their request.
The department used to have officers trained in suicide prevention that worked within the department through peer groups, but that hasn’t been updated in recent years, Paris said.
“The union’s always available to them if they need assistance,” he said. “We have resources we’d be able to provide.”
Communication is key
Police officers often bottle up what they’re feeling, according to Deitz, who also served as a psychiatrist at a Washington, D.C., police and fire clinic and has worked with police officers in Bridgeport and surrounding towns.
“By virtue of their work, policemen don’t necessarily sit around and talk about how crappy their day was,” he said, adding that that behavior creates an element of isolation.
And adding to that is the constant fear of what they’ll be walking into on a call.
“It puts them at an extremely high level of stress,” Deitz said.
He said there are various ways to help relieve some of the stress police officers deal with on a daily basis. One way would be for incoming cops to learn about the trauma they might encounter and how to seek professional help.
“They need someone to explain it’s hazardous to your brain, not just your body,” Deitz said.
Perez said that’s something Bridgeport police do. Training Academy Commander Capt. Rebecca Garcia, a peer support coordinator, talks to incoming recruits to ensure they realize the trauma they might experience on the job.
When a traumatic event happens, Perez said, Garcia is among the officials to step in to make sure police officers schedule a one-on-one meeting with a professional to talk about what happened.
Perez said traumatic events can include, among other things, an officer-involved shooting, a mass shooting, a major car crash, a suicide or a homicide.
“You go home to your wife and two little kids, you’re not going to tell her what it was like in that miserable place you went into today because you don’t want to burden your wife,” Deitz said. “Instead, you compartmentalize it and keep it in.”
But, Perez said, the department strives to do more.
“We’re working on getting away from the mentality of warriors,” he said. “We are guardians of the society. We are here to serve and to protect the good people who we work for.”