NORWALK VA. March 28 2008 – Police officers rarely kill themselves while on duty, as city Police Officer Matthew Morelli apparently did. But experts said yesterday that his age, time on the force and broken marriage are common in cops who take their own lives.
Morelli, 38, was found shot to death in a church parking lot early Friday, minutes after radioing dispatchers that he was checking on something suspicious.
A citywide manhunt initially ensued for a possible killer of the 11-year veteran, but investigators yesterday acknowledged a “high degree of probability” that Morelli had taken his own life.
“If it is a suicide, it is rare to have that staged a suicide,” said Dr. Audrie Honig, chief psychologist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and head of psychological services for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “Suicide is a very impulsive act. You don’t typically get something planned and staged.”
Robert Douglas, a former police officer in Florida and Maryland who runs the National Police Suicide Foundation, agreed. He said 94 percent of suicides that have occurred since 1997 are at home.
Honig speculated Morelli wanted his suicide to look as if he were gunned down in the line of duty because of the stigma associated with police officers who take their own lives.
“There’s the whole sociological response to suicide, versus (being killed) in the line of duty, from both family and colleagues,” Honig said. “Society looks down upon suicide. In law enforcement, it’s even less acceptable because you’re supposed to be ‘strong’ all the time.”
Douglas said Morelli’s personal code as a police officer and former Marine could have played into the decision.
“Being a ‘warrior,’ he did it while on duty, just like over in Vietnam we had soldiers who killed themselves over there,” said Douglas, who served as a Marine in the 1960s.
Morelli was found lying over an AK-47, which sources said he may have brought back from the first gulf war.
That also fit, Douglas said.
“The weapon was one he felt comfortable using,” Douglas said. “The weapon takes on an identity. It seems crazy, but it’s the truth. When I was in the Marine Corps, that M-14 was my life.”
Douglas said Morelli’s profile fits the general description of police officers who take their own lives.
“The average officer who kills themselves has been on for 13 years, is usually about 35, a white male and kills themselves over a relationship. It’s so consistent,” Douglas said. “Most of these officers, when the foundation at home gives away, then everything falls apart.”
Morelli’s colleagues said he was depressed after his ex-wife returned about a year ago to her native Australia with their 6-year-old daughter, Sydney Anne.
Experts said solid relationships can help police cope with daily job pressures.
“It is a stressful job. It carries enormous power, and they see people at their worst,” Honig said. “We really need to provide these folks with preventative intervention.”
Honig said although most police departments nationwide try to take proactive steps against suicides, it is rare to find a comprehensive program even in a large police department like Los Angeles.
Honig said the International Association of Chiefs of Police is developing a suicide prevention clearinghouse, where departments can turn for resources.
Three years ago, Norwalk, at Chief Harry Rilling’s urging, joined a statewide Employee Assistance Program, an organization that provides 24-hour assistance for emergency first responders.
“We always find ourselves looking back and saying ‘What could have happened differently?’ ” Rilling said yesterday. “We do a lot. Could we do more? We’ll have to see.”
Dr. Jay Berkowitz, a psychiatrist who has worked with the state Department of Correction and counseled police officers in his private practice, said the Employee Assistance Program works.
But he said police should not be afraid to use it.
“Sometimes police officers are too embarrassed to use them,” Berkowitz said. “I think the police department should say, ‘Look, if you need to go for help, it’s there.’ Make it clear it’s all right to go for help.”
Rilling acknowledged police officers are reluctant to get help, and the program is trained to overcome those barriers.
He said the program will be running “stress debriefings” immediately after tomorrow’s funeral for Morelli.
“One thing police officers ask themselves is could they have seen this coming? Could they have prevented this?” Berkowitz said.
Honig said it is difficult for police departments to come to terms with an officer’s suicide versus a duty-related death.
“The line-of-duty death is something they memorialize. They have a process for it and a protocol. There’s a lot of tradition and that’s sort of a healing process in and of itself,” Honig said.
She said some departments wrestle with how to bury an officer who took his or her own life, and she has been trying to persuade law enforcement authorities to treat suicides as other active-duty deaths.
“This is just somebody who felt so blocked in and so at their last ends and in an impulsive movement did something they couldn’t take back,” she said.
Rilling said Morelli will be buried with full honors in recognition of his service to Norwalk and to his country.
“The (possible suicide) will probably have some impact on how far people travel to attend, but we expect a big turnout,” Rilling said. “I know the law enforcement community stands beside us and supports us no matter what the situation. A person killed in the line-of-duty is one level, but an officer dying an untimely death is something they sympathize and empathize with.”
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