What to Know
- Police officer suicide is a quiet crisis across the country, last year claiming more officers than on-duty deaths.
- Support officers work to get officers to talk about their emotional response to traumatic events and determine whether they need counseling.
- Within a day of the Boston Marathon bombing, a peer support team arrived from New York City.
Brian Fleming’s PowerPoint begins, startlingly, with an image showing a bloody tangle of people on Boylston Street and two Boston Police officers edging toward them.
“They’re waiting for the second bomb. They’re a little hesitant,” Fleming said.
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Sgt. Fleming, now retired, ran the Boston Police Department SWAT unit. He also served, then and now, as a peer-to-peer support officer, a critical role to support officers who respond to traumatic events and to prevent suicide.
Police officer suicide is a quiet crisis across the country, last year claiming more officers than on-duty deaths. Support officers and incident debriefings are meant to get officers to talk about their emotional response to traumatic events and determine whether they need counseling for depression or PTSD, which can lead to suicide.
Fleming shows the PowerPoint presentation to underscore the trauma the officers endure.
“There were two officers that committed suicide in Boston four years ago,” Fleming said. “One of them was involved in the Watertown shootout. It was almost at the one-year anniversary he committed suicide.”
Two officers in Massachusetts died by suicide within the last week, including a Boston police officer.
Nationwide, 154 died by suicide last year, more than in the line of duty.
Often, the officers’ widows and kids are stripped of health insurance and access to the officers' pension—sometimes the same day the officer died.
Of 2,200 Boston police officers, 814 were assigned to work the Marathon in 2013, unaware of how a few moments that afternoon would define the rest of their lives.
Within a day of the bombing, a peer support team arrived from New York City. Boston was repaid for support BPD offered the New York Police Department in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
“Who better to have than the largest police department in the country who cut their teeth on 9/11 coming to help us during the Marathon?” Fleming said.
That team dispatched to Boston included NYPD’s Lt. Rich Mack, who worked at Ground Zero and then transitioned to his role as peer to peer support officer.
“We would debrief officers at the landfill, which is where all the material went from Ground Zero, and there was nothing better than an out-of-state peer support officer from Shelby County, Alabama, or a Massachusetts state trooper coming up and saying, ‘Hey, I’m a fellow officer I’m here to help you and you guys are doing a great job and if you’d like to talk we’re here.’”
Debriefings after the Marathon bombing were mandatory.
The support teams from Boston and New York debriefed 650 officers and 400 civilians in just nine days.
“When you’re involved in something major like 9/11 or the Boston bombings, you feel like you’re one of the only people who can understand what it’s like to go through,” Mack said.
Two bombs exploded within twelve seconds. Three people, dead. Hundreds injured, many severely.
“Two female officers came up arm-in-arm,” Fleming recalled. “One of them helping the other one. I sat her down and I just listened to her. Let her get all that stuff out. Then I walked her to an ambulance and I started doing that with other people. I later found out she was the officer who was giving Lu Lingzi CPR when she died.”
Hundreds of officers suddenly carrying the wounded, applying tourniquets, comforting victims alongside EMS and fire crews.
“This is Officer Tommy Barrett and a kid named Little Leo,” Fleming recalled, looking at his PowerPoint. “His father lost a leg in the explosion. Tommy grabbed the kid and brought him to an ambulance while they treated his father.”
In those early moments, Fleming immediately recognized the need those officers weren’t even aware of yet.
“That’s Officer Shannon Cantone,” Fleming said. “She’s helping a woman and talking to her. She lost her leg.”
Twelve seconds, two bombs, five days of chaos.
“The officers in District 4, that was their home turf and they wouldn’t go home,” Fleming said. “When the teams of peer support officers went out the next day in teams of two, they found officers standing on Mass. Avenue in kind of a stunned stage. Some had blood on their hands from working on people from the day before.”
Four critical incidents in five days.
“That’s a lot for anybody,” Fleming said.
And the pain would become personal and would hit home for many officers. In his presentation, Fleming includes surveillance footage of Boylston Street just before the bombs went off. He can point out Bill Richard, father of 8-year-old Richard, who died in the second explosion, standing on the sidewalk.
“There’s a section of Dorchester named Cop Land because a lot of police officers, firefighters, EMT’s live in that area,” Fleming said. “So there were police officers whose children played with the Richard family’s kids. So that added grief on top of what they had already seen.”
And on Boylston Street, local Boston police fumed at federal agents also working the scene. The FBI, which took charge of the incident, ordered the boy’s body to remain on the street, now a crime scene.
“Of course the family was deeply upset, and there were four Boston officers who volunteered to stand guard all night long until the body was removed the next day,” Fleming said.
The Massachusetts Coalition of Police quiz helps officers determine if they are suffering from depression or are at risk of suicide.