OAKLAND -- The city's already beleaguered police force now is reeling from two officer suicides in less than two months, prompting a push for more robust mental health services.
Officer William "Billy" Burke, a 13-year department veteran, shot himself to death in a remote mountain location Friday, law enforcement sources said. On July 31, Officer Porter Weston, who joined the force in 2006, fatally shot himself in his car on an Oakland street. He was 28.
Oakland provides several mental health services to officers, including peer counseling and access to a therapist, which are standard for major departments. But given the recent deaths and the added stress officers face working for an understaffed department in the state's most violent city, there is a growing call for the city to do more.
"The situation is so acute now," said police union President Sgt. Barry Donelan. "I think the department needs to have a program that every member goes through to deal with suicide prevention."
Department leaders said they agreed and were in discussions about how to add additional training. "Suicides are tragic and the recent deaths of OPD officers have been difficult for the entire department," Holly Joshi, the chief of staff to interim chief Sean Whent, said in an email.
Police officers are about 69 percent more likely than the general population to take their own lives, said John Violanti, a former New York state trooper who researches officer suicides as a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
The higher suicide rates are generally attributable to the day-to-day trauma of the job and the fact that officers carry guns. "You've got the means right on your hip," he said.
Documenting officer suicides is an imperfect science because many departments don't report them accurately. A 2012 report by the police suicide watchdog group Badge of Life documented 126 officer suicides that year, but Violanti estimated that the true figure was about 17 percent greater.
In Oakland, Weston's suicide was not included as an "officer death" in the department's monthly staffing report to the City Council.
Over the past five years, four Oakland police officers have taken their lives -- the same number as those killed in the line of duty.
Violanti said Oakland's suicide rate was alarmingly high. "They need to take another look at their training and their mental health situations," he said.
Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation and a former Baltimore police officer, said it was vital for police leaders in Oakland to immediately address the suicides.
"I would want to get all my command personnel together and all my special units and tell them that the mental health of our officers is our number one priority," he said. "Unless leadership makes a commitment to the rank-and-file, no programs are going to make a dent."
Heavy workloads increase stress on officers but haven't been directly correlated with increased suicides, Violanti said. Oakland police have had to work at least one overtime shift a week to keep patrol beats filled, and more in the wake of recent protests.
Weston and Burke, however, didn't have to face the brunt of the department's staffing shortfall. After being injured on patrol, Weston had been transferred to a desk job before his suicide. Burke, who had to fight to regain his job after being implicated in a 2008 faulty search warrant scandal, worked at the firing range.
Like prior suicides, Burke's death caused plenty of heartache among the rank-and-file, said the Rev. Jayson Landeza, who served 13 years as Oakland's police chaplain before leaving the department this year.
"The effects are devastating," he said. "Cops are good about hiding their emotions, but when it's someone as loved as Billy was, you sit there thinking why that person would take that direction."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435.