Independent Review Board chair James Steward and co-chair James Coldren talk about the boards conclusion that detective Sean Suiter committed suicide. (Baltimore Sun video)
A neighbor from my boyhood, the teenaged son of my cousin, a high school classmate of my younger brother, a multi-talented friend and father of four children, and an officer with the old Maryland Port Administration police force. Those are the people I’ve personally known who committed suicide.
Four of them go back 35 to 50 years, and one suicide occurred in 2000. All of us probably know people who ended their own lives. Suicides have been on the rise in the United States.
There were nearly 45,000 in 2016. That’s more than twice the number of homicides in the same year.
For its most recent report, issued in June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at suicides over a 17-year period, starting with 1999. Suicide rates — the number of suicide deaths per 100,000 people — rose during that time in all but one state, Nevada. In half of the states, the rise was more than 30 percent. (In Maryland, the number of suicides rose by more than a third; there were 435 in Maryland in 1999, and 586 in 2016.)
The vast majority of suicides occur among men and boys, though the rate among women is rising.
Here’s a disturbing fact within all the disturbing facts from the CDC: “More than half of people who died by suicide did not have a [diagnosed] mental health condition.”
Something else: A white paper released in April found that, in 2017, more firefighters and police officers died by suicide than in the line of duty. The Ruderman Family Foundation, a Massachusetts-based philanthropy devoted to a number of causes, including access to mental health services, commissioned the paper. “In 2017, there were at least 103 firefighter suicides and 140 police officer suicides,” the report said. “In contrast, 93 firefighters and 129 police officers died in the line of duty.”
Here’s another fact, a little older, picked up from Business Insider’s 2011 examination of the relation between suicide rates and occupations. After culling through millions of death certificates at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the BI staff found that white men by far represented the largest data set. But, for white women and black men, “police and detectives” were among the jobs with the highest rates of suicide.
I am not presenting this dreary subject today to signal agreement with the independent review board’s conclusion that Sean Suiter, the Baltimore police detective, likely took his own life last November in West Baltimore. I agree with those, including the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, who say we might never know what really happened in the moments before Suiter was found mortally wounded. Though plausible, the conclusion that he made his suicide look like a murder is based on circumstantial evidence. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, so it follows that people might be confused.
And, given the connection between the detective and the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force — Suiter was not considered a target of the investigation of those dirty cops but was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury the day after he died — it’s no wonder that the panel’s conclusion has been met with derision and charges of a cover-up.
Considering all that has happened over the last three years — Freddie Gray, the trials (and acquittals) of officers in connection with his death, the April 2015 unrest, the surge of violence since then, four police commissioners since then, the appalling GTTF scandal since then — it’s almost easier for chaos-and-corruption-weary Baltimoreans to embrace conspiracy and assume the worst.
But, while I have not had the benefit of polling, I suspect that something besides skepticism informs the public pushback. Suicide is hard to accept. We don’t want to think about it. It frightens us. It angers us. It takes some of us back to the dark edges of life and rekindles memories of personal torment. Others see suicide as the ultimate selfish act that inflicts far more pain than it relieves.
Sean Suiter worked for the city of Baltimore, a homicide detective trying to solve unsolved murders in a city infested with guns and too many people willing to use them. We consider those who do that kind of detective work to be tough, committed, heroic.
And so we don’t want suicide to be the story of Sean Suiter — for the sake of his family, his wife, Nicole, his five children. We can’t imagine going through what his wife and kids have gone through, from the detective’s violent death, to the scramble to find his killer, to the funeral and burial, and then, in the quest for some kind of closure, all lingering questions rolled out and debated in the biggest public way. It’s a tragedy compounded by tragedy.