Michael Pigott was an experienced NYPD lieutenant with an elite team trained to deal with the most hostile scenarios. He was calm under pressure. A good leader.
Last fall, Pigott responded to a call of a naked man teetering on a building ledge and jabbing at officers below with a long fluorescent light bulb. Among New York police work, not an extraordinary case. Pigott made a split decision to order an officer to fire a stun gun, but the order backfired, leading to the man's death _ and Pigott's eventual suicide.
"I was trying to protect my guys that day! ... I can't bear to lose my family and go to jail," he wrote in capital letters in a suicide note to his three children and wife, who is now suing the city and police department because she believes the NYPD threw her husband to the wolves as it sought a scapegoat in the case.
Though suicide is relatively rare among police officers, experts say it's important for officers, especially those in charge like Pigott, to feel they have the support of their superiors and their community. Yet that's hard to come by, especially after an event like the Tasered man's death that puts the entire department under a spotlight and takes on a life of its own through viral videos.
Susan Pigott says in her lawsuit that NYPD disciplinary action after the incident caused "extreme emotional anguish, humiliation, depression, fear and shame." The suit was filed to clear her husband's name, she said. It seeks no specific monetary claim.
The city Law Department, which is handling the case, issued a short statement. "While the loss of lives was clearly tragic, we are unable to comment any further due to the pending litigation," said Mark Palomino, chief of the special litigation unit.
Pigott, who died on his 46th birthday, was an emergency services officer for six years and a member of the department for more than 20. The team deals with hostage situations, suicidal suspects, building collapses and hazardous materials threats. It's a place for cool heads who can deal with the unpredictable.
They are the best of the best at the nation's largest police department.
"He had saved people who were attempting suicide on bridges; he had gone to sites where people were going to fall and he rescued them," said the family's attorney, Rodney Lapidus. "He was a cop's cop."
But that day he made the wrong call, and Iman Morales died.
Morales had a history of emotional problems, and witnesses and neighbors said he had grown increasingly agitated and threatened to kill himself, prompting his mother to call 911. When police arrived, Morales fled out the window of his third-floor apartment.
Pigott ordered Officer Nicholas Marchesona to fire the Taser. The 5,000-volt shock immobilized the 35-year-old Morales, who then toppled from his perch. He plunged 10 feet to the ground and died. Officers had radioed for an inflatable bag as the incident unfolded, but it had not yet arrived when Morales fell.
The confrontation was caught on amateur video, and the media pressure was immediate and intense. Tabloids posted the video on their Web sites, and it was played over and over on local news as an angry Morales family and community demanded disciplinary action. Reporters surrounded Pigott's home. He apologized to the family, saying he was "truly sorry."
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said quickly afterward that it appeared Pigott had violated department rules with his order. He was stripped of his gun and badge and demoted to a job with the department's motor vehicle fleet.
The Brooklyn prosecutor's office and the police department investigated, routine when a death occurs involving officers, but the case still plagued Pigott. He never spoke to an attorney.
"He was thinking he was going to be prosecuted and the city wasn't going to be backing us at all," Susan Pigott said.
It's difficult for civilians to understand the pressures of police work, and the effect of intense scrutiny, especially after a traumatic event, according to psychologists who counsel officers.
"If you're a cop and you make a mistake, you don't have the next day. The decision is made in a millisecond: to pull the trigger, to give an order to fire or not to fire, not to go into a dark alley," said Dr. Daniel Goldfarb, who has been counseling officers in Long Island's Suffolk County for decades. "Your decisions are far more rapid than the public makes."
And the repercussions can be much more isolating and tragic.
"Among their worst fears is being put up on trial for doing their job as best they could," said Dr. Daniel Rudofossi, a former NYPD officer who counseled officers and is now an administrative clinician with the Drug Enforcement Administration. "Though it's not usual to act out that quickly."
Pigott was ordered to undergo counseling, but it's not clear whether he attended any sessions. There's been great improvement in the NYPD and in other departments with peer support and counseling to try to break the stigma of the stoic officer. But it's still difficult to get officers to talk, Rudofossi said.
Depression, stress and trauma are common, but suicide is not. The suicide rate for NYPD officers is lower than that of average New Yorkers, according to a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Susan Pigott said her husband didn't bring his work home with him. But that week he seemed pretty depressed.
"'My life is on the line, my job is on the line. What's going to happen to me?' were just a few of the things that he expressed," Susan Pigott said.
He grew increasingly distraught. Eight days after the stun gun confrontation, on the day Morales was to be buried, Pigott killed himself with a single shot to the head from a 9 mm Glock handgun at his unit's headquarters.
"I love you all I'm sorry for the mess!!" he wrote to his family, signing the letter with careful, flowery script, "Michael Pigott."
Associated Press writer Frank Eltman contributed to this report from Bohemia, N.Y.