'Never seen it as bad as it is now': Law enforcement brass shine spotlight on police suicides

More officers die from suicide every year than in the line of duty.

April 6, 2019, 10:59 AM

Officer Andrew Einstein was supposed to die on May 12, 2012.

The former Marine who served two tours overseas, now a cop, had planned it all out.

Before going out that night, he laid out his prescription drugs on his bedside table.

He was going to get drunk and take all of the pills when he got home. He hoped to never wake up.

Andrew Einstein is pictured in this undated photo with his service dog.

Einstein, wounded in Afghanistan in 2011, was having problems with post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury, but he was afraid to ask for help.

"I thought in my mind if I reached out and asked for help, they would take my badge and my gun," he said, speaking at the Law Enforcement Suicide and Prevention Symposium at NYPD headquarters.

Einstein said he got too drunk to take the pills, and his friends put him on the couch when he got home. He woke up the next morning.

Einstein's story is not uncommon, according to law enforcement officials and health experts, and it's one more and more police officers are starting to share.

Police suicides, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that's tracked these figures since 2016, are responsible for more deaths than occur in the line of duty each year.

Andrew Einstein is pictured in this undated photo during his time as a U.S. Marine.

In 2018, that number reached 165, according to Blue H.E.L.P.

That number is "conservative," said Miriam Heyman, a researcher with the Ruderman Family Foundation, a nonprofit, philanthropic research organization. There isn't a central database for all police suicides.

"Police officers experience trauma on a regular basis -- not just what is on the front line of nightly news," Heyman continued. She went on to say that 10% of police officers have injured or have killed someone in the past three years, and officers experience on average 188 "critical incidents" over the course of their careers.

Top law enforcement officials agree.

PHOTO: Officers stand attention in this stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

"It's usually not an event, it's a culmination of many events," Anthony Riccio, first deputy superintendent for the Chicago Police Department, said at the event.

The event put on by the Police Executive Research Forum brought together federal, state, local and international law enforcement agencies to address the problem.

"I can't think of a more important issue," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told the more than 300 people in the room.

We need to educate families on what this job can do. I think it's extremely important.

Roccio detailed one instance where a police officer drove into a parking lot after she reported for duty and killed herself in her police cruiser.

"It's been hard for us," he said, choking up. "We take it personally."

"I've never seen it as bad as it is now," he added, citing his 35 years on the force.

This year, the CPD already has had three police officer suicides.

Officer Andrew Einstein speaks during an interview.

Einstein told ABC affiliate WPVI that he suffered a serious brain injury due to a grenade blast in Afghanistan.

"My life was a wreck, to say the least, and having no purpose, I thought about suicide. But I didn't just think about it. Killing myself became a viable option. I began formulating a plan. It was the worst place I've ever been in my life, by far," he later wrote on the military website American Grit.

Einstein credits his service dog, Gunner, and a veterans program with saving his life.

"He gave me purpose. Though my life was still a wreck, I had a responsibility to take care of him. He truly saved my life," he wrote.

After he came out of a dark place, he returned to being a police officer. But, he said, the threat of suicide didn't end when he put his police uniform back on.

Officer Andrew Einstein is pictured with his service dog.

Experts at the symposium agreed.

"If you are a law enforcement officer, you have a 54% greater chance of dying from suicide," said John Violanti, an epidemiology and environmental health professor and expert on police stress at the University of Buffalo.

Breaking the stigma on getting help is the first step, experts said.

"You smash the stigma, you save lives," said Jon Adler, a former police officer and the director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance at the Department of Justice.

Supportive families can also help.

"We need to educate families on what this job can do -- I think it's extremely important," Violanti added.

Some police departments are hiring mental health and wellness experts, while others are turning to peer counseling or outside counseling.

Einstein is now an officer at a police department in New Jersey. He said he's grateful for the opportunity -- not just to serve his community, but to have support in understanding his condition and serve to the very best of his ability.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741-741.