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N.Y. Officer Survives a Trip to the Edge : Depression: Anguished by years of seeing death, Paul Ciurcina almost shot unarmed man and then was saved by a friend from killing himself.

January 01, 1995|TOM HAYS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — In one of his darkest hours, Officer Paul Ciurcina made a routine arrest and unleashed an inner demon.

Ciurcina, his revolver drawn, had cornered an unarmed burglar in some bushes off a Staten Island street. Suddenly, years of mental anguish narrowed into one wicked impulse.

"I wanted to shoot him, or I wanted to give him my gun and have him shoot me. This bull---- burglar," Ciurcina recalled recently. "Right then, I knew I was a living cop who was really dead."

A friend stopped the decorated police officer from killing himself the next evening.

More than 10 years later, Ciurcina is off the force and still in intensive therapy. But unlike Officer Daniel Atkinson and a grim legion of other suicidal New York Police Department officers, he is alive to talk about his trip to the edge.

On Nov. 14, an off-duty Atkinson, 31, put the barrel of his 9-millimeter semiautomatic in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

In so doing, he set a new post-Depression record for the nation's largest police department: 11 officers killed in one year, all by their own hand.

The suicide toll for the last 10 years now stands at 63. Only 20 city officers were shot and killed in the line of duty over the same period.

According to a Columbia University study released last year, NYPD officers kill themselves at what would be a rate of about 29 per 100,000 annually. The general population rate is roughly 12 per 100,000.

Most victims are young patrolmen with no record of misconduct. And most shoot themselves while off duty. The department typically blames domestic turmoil and ready access to a gun.

But experts call that conclusion simplistic. The job's daily barrage of misery, violence and carnage are catalysts for depression and suicide, said Dr. Harold Bloomfield, a psychiatrist who has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department.

"Many of our police officers are dealing with a Vietnam out there," Bloomfield said. "They're coming home with post-traumatic syndrome and we're turning our backs on them."

In recent years, the 31,000-member NYPD has reached out with a 24-hour hotline, support groups and a variety of counseling services, all with assurances of confidentiality.

But the Columbia study suggests police officers still are prone to being "too macho to seek help" when they need it, said Prof. Andre Ivanoff.

"Paulie" Ciurcina disagrees.

Fear and ignorance, not pride, keep troubled officers in limbo, he said. The department, he argued, unreasonably expects officers to confront danger and death without becoming despondent--but if they do, it seizes their guns.

"If you give me the power to help others, then let me cry. Don't take my soul" is the way he puts it.

Today, Ciurcina, now 53, rarely leaves his Staten Island home. His long, gray hair and penchant for black T-shirts make him look more like an aging beatnik poet than former cop.

He spends long hours in a cramped office writing poems, journal entries and fiction. In a story called "The Bloody Pool," a female officer is forced "to kill in the name of the law and doesn't know how to deal with it."

His own tale is much the same. He tells it in a rambling monologue rife with despair, guilt, bitterness and, ultimately, hope.

Raised in Brooklyn, Ciurcina joined the department at age 30 following a stint in the military. He became a tireless crime fighter intensely devoted to fellow officers working in the borough's tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section, intoxicated by "the power to do good."

"I was a good cop. I was a keeper. I was a protector," he said.

The events of April 2, 1978 triggered his downward spiral.

Responding to a radio call of officers in distress at about 2 a.m., Ciurcina and his partner found two comrades mortally wounded by gunfire. He jumped into the back of a patrol car and cradled one of them.

"I was telling him 'Don't die! Don't die!,' " Ciurcina said.

The fallen officer gurgled blood into Ciurcina's mouth during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation--a kiss of death he could never wash away.

Traumatized but offered no help, Ciurcina worked harder than ever. He made arrests, survived shootouts and won citations for bravery and valor. But subconsciously, "It was all over for me," he said. "I didn't do a good job because they had died."

Horrors, real and imagined, overtook him.

In a recurring dream, he would walk through a muddy cemetery where the two officers were buried. The mud would turn to blood. And every tombstone became that of another slain cop.

One day, he forced his partner to stop their radio car in front of Our Lady of Victory Church. He recalled throwing open the doors to question God.

"Why did you do this? Who gave me this power that I have to uphold all these deaths?" he ranted in the church. "I've been to the gates of hell and smelled the stench of death."

Each body he encountered on the job became part of his psychic killing field: a teen-ager who hanged himself in his bedroom; a scissors-wielding man he watched other officers fill with bullets; a decapitated woman named Gloria whose head he discovered in a pillowcase in a backyard.

After the 1983 episode, Ciurcina was hospitalized and put on antidepressants. Nine months later, he was dismissed from the department on psychological disability.

Today, Ciurcina hopes that telling his story will help other officers on the edge, as well as reaffirm his own survival.

"I only want to say to the world 'Hello. I'm still here,' " he said.

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