When former police officer Omar Delgado heard the news of four current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department dying by suicide in less than 24 hours last week, he understood.
“It’s kind of like a pressure cooker. If you don’t slowly let go of that steam little by little, when it does pop, it’s over because it’s going to be such a big explosion.”
Delgado was one of the first officers on the scene of the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando on June 12, 2016. He suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from that night, and has attempted to take his own life twice.
“They just popped,” he said.
In announcing the deaths of three current members and one retired member, the LA County sheriff’s department said homicide detectives are investigating each of the four deaths independently. The names of the deceased were not disclosed.
“We are stunned to learn of these deaths, and it has sent shockwaves of emotions throughout the department,” Sheriff Robert Luna said in a statement.
Richard Pippin, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, told CNN he is “very confident” there was no correlation between the deceased members, who died between Monday morning and Tuesday morning.
A stressful job in a field struggling to fill the ranks
The deaths were unprecedented, with so many in a single agency in such a short time frame, begging the need for enhanced mental health resources and incentives for officers to recognize, seek and accept help when they need it, law enforcement experts said.
Pippin said the losses hit an agency dealing with low morale and severe staffing shortages.
The numbers are stark. On any given day, the department is short roughly 4,000 employees in an agency budgeted to have more than 17,000, according to a department budget report released earlier this year.
“With all the hiring the department has been able to do over six months, they were able to achieve a net gain of 15 employees. In other words, they’re just treading water. People are leaving as fast as they get hired,” Pippin said.
In some cases, officers are working up to 70 hours per week, Pippin said. “They aren’t seeing their families. It’s an arduous, stressful job,” he said.
The sheriff’s department in Los Angeles County isn’t alone. Police agencies nationwide have been struggling to fill and keep their ranks since the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 death of George Floyd, which sparked protests and scrutiny of law enforcement biases across the country.
From one call to the next, law enforcement officers meet people at the most difficult moments in their lives, he added.
“… And to deal with that, such a high percentage of your waking hours, week after week, and month after month, it’s wearing on them,” Pippin said.
Nine members of the department have died by suicide this year, a number far surpassing recent years: one in 2022, three in 2021 and two in 2020, Pippin said.
Police rarely seek help
The four suicides represent a “cluster,” a term tied to the phenomenon of suicide contagion, according to Dr. John Mann, a neuroscience professor at Columbia University and director of research and molecular imaging at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.
Clusters are proven to afflict close-knit groups, particularly those in uniform, when one act of suicide increases the risk others may attempt or die by suicide, said Mann.
Police serve in a profession afflicted with a 54% higher risk for suicide compared to the general US population, according to a study by John Violanti, research professor at University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions and an internationally known expert on police stress.
The resistance among police officers to speak out is rooted in the fear of how it will impact their jobs. “Because they know the department has liability concerns when it comes to sending a person out in public with a gun while knowing they’re experiencing emotional or psychological difficulties,” Pippin said.
It’s the result of the stigma around mental health ingrained in police culture, which perpetuates an attitude to “suck it up and move on,” according to Charles Ramsey, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC.
Ramsey recalled witnessing the most gruesome scene in his 50-year career in law enforcement when he responded to a crime scene where five people had been murdered.
“To see something like that, it’s just not normal,” he said. “So, what do you do? You push it down. You suppress any emotion. But it doesn’t mean it’s not there, and if it goes untreated, over time, it builds up.”
As chief of the Philadelphia Police Department from 2008 to 2016, Ramsey implemented mandatory annual checkups with mental health professionals, and found officers voluntarily came back for second or third follow-up appointments.
“The ones that need it the most are the ones less likely to reach out and try to get help,” Ramsey said.
Looking for signs
A slight change in an officer’s behavior, appearance, mood and performance can be signs they might need support, according to Michael Harrison, former police commissioner in Baltimore and New Orleans, who enhanced officer wellness programs in both agencies.
“They’re already going through something emotionally mentally, spiritually, but we don’t want to have policies that then feel like we’re punishing them when they come to us and say I need help,” Harrison said.
Dr. Jeff Thompson, a research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center and a former NYPD hostage negotiator, cautioned it is “potentially dangerous” to reduce police suicides to a single cause.
“Inevitably, it’s stress combined with a psychiatric illness that is not treated,” said Mann, citing findings from studies of police suicides over the years.
So far this year, 86 police officers nationwide have died by suicide, according to the website Blue H.E.L.P., which tracks US officer suicides. But the number is underreported by at least 25% due to the stigma in police departments around reporting mental health issues, according to Karen Solomon, who cofounded the organization.
Everybody is scared to bring it up
Despite efforts to lessen the stigma, law enforcement officers still fear the consequences of raising mental health concerns to their superiors.
When Omar Delgado responded to the Pulse nightclub shooting, he saw the horrors where a gunman killed 49 people and wounded dozens of others. He spent hours inside Pulse with the dead as the standoff with the gunman continued.
The former suburban Eatonville Police Department officer was hailed as a hero by many for his actions, but haunted by the carnage, Delgado was not able to work for six months after the shooting and then returned to the force at a desk job.
By the end of 2017, Delgado lost his job at the department where he worked for nearly a decade because of his PTSD, he said. He said a doctor hired by the agency evaluated him as “unfit for duty.” CNN previously reported the department could neither confirm nor deny any further details, citing privacy regulations. He now works in private security.
“I became a poster child of PTSD because I reached out to my superiors and said, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling good. Something’s wrong. I need help,’” Delgado told CNN. “And it just went downhill from there.”
Delgado said the Pulse tragedy was a turning point for police officers warming up to the idea of sharing mental health concerns and asking for help. But when Delgado was fired, he said, it sent a message to other officers the same could happen to them.
“I was constantly reliving that nightmare, seeing those bodies and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t control my brain, my mind, to stop it from happening,” Delgado said.
It left him wondering about solutions to the stresses of his line of work.
“Is there a way to maybe slowly let the steam out of that pressure cooker, maybe quarterly, maybe yearly?” Delgado said. “I don’t know, because everybody is scared to bring it up. Nobody wants to get fired.”
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com