After four police suicides, Conn. law enforcement seeks answers

By Dave Collins
Associated Press / August 10, 2011

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HARTFORD - No one knows why four Connecticut police officers killed themselves from April to June. For law enforcement officials gathering at a conference today, the most important question now is how to prevent others from doing the same.

The event, titled “Training the Mind: Preventing Police Suicide and Promoting Mental Wellness,’’ is sponsored by the university, the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, and the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The conference at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain is expected to draw nearly 300 police officials from across the state.

Redding Police Chief Douglas Fuchs said recent suicides have brought renewed focus on what has long been a concern in the law enforcement community.

“Being a police officer in this state or any state comes with many personal challenges: the hours of work, what the officers see,’’ said Fuchs, president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

“Most people don’t call the police when they’re having a good day,’’ Fuchs said. “We’re dealing with the public when they’re at their worst.’’

National studies show that about 140 police officers across the country killed themselves each year from 2008 to 2010 and that officers are three times more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by others.

Another recent study by the Badge of Life, a group of active and retired police officers, medical specialists, and families affected by suicide, found that police officers have a higher suicide rate than the general public. The research found that while the suicide rate for the general public was 11 per 100,000 people, police officers’ rate was 17 per 100,000.

Authorities say two Connecticut police officers killed themselves in June. Southbury Officer Anton Tchorzyk Jr. was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Watertown, and Groton City Lieutenant Thomas Forbes shot himself in the head at the Police Department.

In May, New Britain Captain Matthew Tuttle shot himself in the head at his Middletown home, and in April, Rocky Hill Sergeant Leonard Kulas was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his cruiser at a local cemetery, officials said.

Louise Pyers, executive director and founder of the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, said the deaths of Tchorzyk, Forbes, and Tuttle appeared to have one thing in common: They were nearing retirement.

“We do know that police officers near retirement are at higher risk [of suicide],’’ Pyers said. “Some officers put all their identity into being a police officer, and then when it comes time to retire they don’t feel they have a purpose.’’

Pyers, a mental health counselor, added that it is not clear whether that was the case with Tchorzyk, Forbes, and Tuttle.

“We really don’t know why so many happened in succession,’’ she said about the deaths. “We’re . . . afraid that it may be because police work is so much more complex than it used to be and police officers are exposed to traumatic events over and over again throughout their careers.’’

Pyers’s nonprofit group, which was formed in 1998 and incorporated in 2003, provides training to police agencies on how officers can deal with mentally ill suspects and with their own mental health problems.

Today’s conference is centered on providing officials with a wealth of information on how to help officers cope with the stresses of their jobs.

Things that police officers can do, Pyers said, include getting mental health checkups once a year, forming peer support groups, and recognizing warning signs.

The event’s keynote speaker will be John Violanti, an associate research professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He is a former New York state trooper who has been studying police stress, trauma, suicide, and health.