Conn. chief speaks out about cop murder/suicide

compiled by Paul Stern stern@courant.com 

Copyright 2005 The Hartford Courant Company
Hartford Courant (Connecticut) 

James Strillacci, 53, has been West Hartford's police chief since 1992 and is the immediate past president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association.

Last month, his department investigated the fatal shooting of off-duty Newington police Officer Ciara McDermott by her estranged boyfriend, suspended state trooper Victor Diaz, who then shot and killed himself.

Staff Writer Daniela Altimari spoke with Strillaci in his office regarding some of the pressures facing police officers.

1Q Statistics tell us that police officers are twice as likely to kill themselves as they are to be killed in the line of duty. And the number one cause of police suicide is marital difficulty. Why do you think that is?

It's not clear what professions are the most suicidal. Police certainly report things accurately, so their numbers are going to be pretty accurate. Medical professions -- doctors, MDs, psychiatrists themselves, dentists -- have been also shown to be far above the general population in suicide. Artistic people often have been above the general population in suicide rates. What we know about suicide is that there are a number of causes: hopelessness, alcoholism. The biggest flag is marital difficulty and access to a firearm -- all are things that can increase the rate of suicide or make it more likely that a person with emotional issues is going to commit suicide. A lot of those things play into the police profession.

We tend to either attract people who are controlling individuals, or, through our training, we teach people to take control. And really that's our job: you go to a chaotic situation, you try to make order out of it. You take control of people who may not want to be controlled, and that becomes part of the police officer's self-image. When he or she loses control, it conflicts with his image of himself and causes internal stress.

Alcohol is a depressant. It makes ... suicide [more likely] in the general population. Police officers tend to have a higher rate of alcoholism than the general population.

Marital difficulty being the largest contributor -- police officers have a higher rate of divorce than the general population. You can see the nature of the job does lead to that. The hours are not conducive to the normal family relationships because you may not see your spouse or your children due to your working hours. Overtime leads to it.

You go to confusing situations. You endure stressful things. You see blood. You see injury ... and you're not supposed to act emotionally. You're not supposed to go to pieces. You're supposed to control your feelings, and it's hard to turn that off like a switch at the end of the day. You go home, and your feelings are still under control. You tend not to talk about problems with your spouse and your children, and that can lead to stress within a marriage.

And last, access to a firearm ... that's a given in our profession. We not only have access, we equip officers with firearms.

2Q Have the pressures and the stresses of the job changed at all in your more than 20 years on the job?

Intuitively, I think they've increased. While crime rates may have gone down, there are many more demands on police. Their job is more highly scrutinized than it was a generation ago. There are a lot more cameras out there ... a lot more interest in their work. Their performance is questioned more often than it used to be. Now, their decisions are second-guessed frequently by citizens, by political leaders, by the media.

We have to worry about not only garden-variety crime, increased firearms availability, but also new threats -- terrorism, homeland security -- things that really were not on the horizon in the '70s when I came on the job.

The pace of living, I think, has increased. Traffic has increased. The general feeling of hurriedness on the part of the public -- it all affects our job. The technology has changed: computers, video cameras, cell phones ... the number of things that put demands on your time and your attention. We've had to learn to deal with technological crimes. Computer crime. Internet predators. Credit card crime, identity theft -- things that didn't exist a generation ago. And the officers have not put down any burdens, but they've taken on many new ones.

3Q Is there any way anybody could predict or prevent a suicidal or homicidal situation like we saw in the McDermott-Diaz deaths?

Absolutely not. A person who's going to a counselor ... his communications are confidential, unless there's some indication of imminent violence, and only then could a counselor share that with anybody. The patient's got to be honest with a counselor, and if he or she keeps things [secret], that's not going to come out. Police officers are trained, but we're not MDs. We may see an issue with somebody and not be able to predict all the consequences of trouble with a spouse or job stress or overtime or fatigue.

We do know that in this particular instance, we hadn't been to that house before November ... We didn't really have any information by which we could predict anything. In hindsight we're finding out there were certainly troubles that predated that.

There are no red flags. There may be little hints, and they may be given to various different people. Once they're collated, you see a situation, but in isolation, they don't mean a thing. We're all under stress. We all have days we'd like not to have lived, where you don't get enough sleep, or somebody chews you out ... People go through those all the time and they don't lose it. They don't pick up a gun and do something stupid with it. How to predict which individual is going to be the one who snaps ... I don't have that kind of crystal ball. I wish I did. 

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