The death of a New Jersey police officer has been ruled a suicide, after he was initially believed to have died in a car crash.
Hamilton Township officer Tom White, 44, was off-duty when his SUV struck the back of a van on June 19, reports the Daily Mail, citing Morris County prosecutors.
The driver of the van was not injured, but White was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy on June 20 revealed that he in fact died from a gunshot wound to the head, and his death was ruled a suicide.
White spent nearly eight years on the Hamilton force, most recently as a Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD) officer in the district's Reynolds Middle School, reports NJ.com.
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Superintendent Scott Rocco said: "Officer White was known to so many in our school community and had a positive influence on all who met him. He was respected by the faculty and staff of Reynolds and across our district, adored by the students he worked with and a positive influence in our schools."
Other community leaders issued statements, as well.
"Officer White has touched many lives and worked to ensure the safety of our young people," said Mayor Kelly Yeade. "For that, our community will always be grateful. ... I want to extend our collective sympathies and our prayers for Officer White's family and loved ones during this extremely difficult time. May they always take solace in the fact that his legacy will endure through the achievements of the countless children he served across our community."
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Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri chimed in: "Officer Tom White touched the lives of thousands of young people in Hamilton Township through his work with the LEAD program, as Officer Friendly, and as the director of Safety Town. He will be sorely missed, as an officer and a good friend."
White "will be greatly missed," said Hamilton Police Chief James W. Collins. "On behalf of the entire Hamilton Police Division, our thoughts and prayers are with Officer White's family."
Non-profit organization Badge of Life has been studying suicides among police officers since 2008.
"It was found that, during 2008, 141 suicides occurred among active law enforcement personnel nationally," the group summarized. "The rate of suicide was 17/100,000, compared to a national public rate of 11/100,000. Notable discoveries included the age at highest risk for suicide (37 years of age) and that service time at highest risk was 10 – 14 years."
The most recent report, for 2016, found that 108 police suicides occurred during the year. "This was a 14 percent reduction from 2012," the summary notes. "California led the nation in such deaths, followed by New York. The average age of a police suicide was again 42 years and the average time on the job was 17 years. Sergeants and above accounted for 22 percent of law enforcement suicides; five were chiefs. 87 percent were males and gunshot was the most common means (80 percent)."
Although the most recent rate of police suicide is approximately the same as the rate for the general public, Badge of Life contends that "the rate for officers should, nonetheless, still be much lower given the psychological/background checks that officers go through during the hiring process and the resultant good mental health at time of entry."
The organization attributes the downward trend in police suicides to "increasingly aggressive application of mental health programs, suicide prevention training, peer support and chaplaincy programs, CISM and an increasing openness by officers to psychotherapy in a toxic career field."