Growing up in the city's Kensington section, Chris DiPietro was raised as a devout Catholic. When he was an adult, his faith inspired an interest in helping others and led him to become a Philadelphia police officer.
But by the time DiPietro entered his fifth year with the department, his family had noticed he was starting to distance himself from his Catholic roots. DiPietro, an officer in Southwest Philadelphia's 12th Police District, also seemed depressed and moody.
"The job took a toll on his faith," said his sister, Christina DiPietro-Sokol. "Police officers, they see so much devastation, so much sadness. It was hard for him to see the point in religion anymore."
On Feb. 13, 2010, DiPietro, 29, came home from a night out with friends and shot himself. In the aftermath, his sister said, the family realized his depression had been far worse than he let on, that he had financial problems, and that he was self-medicating with alcohol and possibly drugs. They have been tortured by a painful question: Could he have been saved?
DiPietro's family has since begun working with the Rev. Luis Centeno, a longtime police chaplain who last year started a scholarship fund aimed at raising awareness of police suicide. DiPietro-Sokol will share her brother's story in the hope that it will make a difference to officers who experience the pain her brother felt.
"My brother made this choice," said DiPietro-Sokol, 33. "I didn't make that choice. My parents didn't make that choice. And we're living with it every day. So if I can get through to someone who is considering this, that is something I can do to move forward."
Founded last fall, the Police Suicide Survivor Scholarship Fellowship provides college money for the children of officers who commit suicide. Unlike for families of officers killed in the line of duty, there is little in the way of a built-in support system for children of officers who commit suicide. Centeno's group has since raised about $15,000, and a banquet event last month drew hundreds of police officers, their families, and others.
Centeno hopes the organization will lead to a larger discussion of the post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems that affect police officers. Many are reluctant to ask for help, Centeno said, because of the stigma surrounding mental-health issues and because they feel they must present a tough-guy image. Many officers also fear that if they express feelings of emotional turmoil, they will be seen as sick or weak and will be demoted.
"There's a lot of shame around this still," Centeno said. "A lot of cops get into this dark place, and they aren't alone, but they don't know how to ask for help."
There are no exact statistics on police suicides nationwide, said Robert E. Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation in Delaware. The rate for the general population is about 14 for every 100,000 people, he said; estimates for police range from that level to more than double, 29 for every 100,000 officers.
Another national group devoted to preventing police suicides, Badge of Life, counted 141 police suicides in 2008. But Douglas, a former Baltimore police officer, said suicides were underreported and the annual number may be higher than 300.
"No department really escapes from this," Douglas said. "The more attention this gets, the more acceptable it is to talk about it, we're going to keep seeing that number get higher."
DiPietro was one of five Philadelphia police officers who committed suicide in 2010. His death came on the heels of personal and professional turmoil, his sister said. He was out of work for two months in 2009 with a knee injury he suffered on the job, and he started drinking more. He also was coming out of a rocky relationship, she said, and was struggling with money.
"We didn't know about a lot of this, but after he died, it started adding up," she said.
DiPietro-Sokol heard her brother talk about some of the upsetting things he saw on the job, such as children selling drugs on the streets alongside their parents. But he loved being a police officer, and he wanted to believe he was making a difference, she said. He never told her how severe his depression had become.
"It was a cowardly act, but my brother was not a coward," she said. "Sometimes you're so focused on helping other people, you just forget to help yourself."