Franklin James Cook

Could Policeman’s Suicide Have Been in the Line of Duty?

In Grief, Policy, Stigma on January 29, 2010 at 4:34 am

Paul and Janice McCarthy pose with their children for a family portrait.

In “The Police Suicide Problem” in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, freelance reporter Julia Dahl probes the connection between trauma on the job and suicide by telling the story of Janice McCarthy’s crusade to have her husband’s suicide classified as a death suffered “in the line of duty.”

Janice took her case to the state retirement board, and in June 2007 her husband’s death was ruled “accidental.” The decision meant she would collect 72 percent of his pension (an “in the line of duty” death would have meant 100 percent and an additional one-time payment of nearly $100,000), but more important, it drew a line connecting his on-the-job injuries to his suicide, opening the door for what Janice McCarthy really wants — her husband’s death to be ruled “line of duty” and his name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The issue is both complex and emotional on all sides, for in police culture giving one’s life “in the line of duty” is the highest sacrifice an officer can make.

Most of the police mental health workers [the reporter] spoke with thought the idea of a “line-of-duty suicide” was intriguing, but they weren’t exactly ready to sign on to a new classification. [Kevin Gilmartin, a retired police officer and clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon], says he think it could create a victim mentality, and Dr. Audrey Honig, who is a former chair of the international chiefs’ association’s Psychological Services Section, says she thinks the better tack would be to lobby for recognition of some suicides within existing line-of-duty classifications …

Almost no one seems to think that there is much chance of getting the federal government to alter line-of-duty qualification rules any time soon. Partly, it’s a financial issue; more line-of-duty deaths would mean bigger payouts to surviving families. And then there’s the stigma of suicide.

[John Violanti, a former New York trooper who is now a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo], says that in police culture it’s considered a “coward’s way out,” and line-of-duty benefits are reserved for “heroic” deaths.

Janice McCarthy, though, sees a clear connection between on-the-job injuries her husband suffered when a stolen bus was driven into his cruiser years ago, the post traumatic stress from that incident, and the emotional and mental downward spiral that ended in Captain Paul McCarthy’s suicide.

“The line-of-duty designation should be sacred,” she [says]. “For an officer to give his life is the ultimate sacrifice, but for a suicide to be categorically eliminated from consideration is unjust. Paul’s legs healed, but his brain did not. Instead, he suffered for 13 more years. His memory deserves to be honored for that struggle, and his children deserve to see their father’s name in its rightful place on that wall.”

Captain McCarthy is survived by three children, ages 12, 17 and 19.

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