There are too many cops taking their own lives. Period. End of story.
But it’s not the end of the story.
Coming forth at CopBlue is a short series on the issue – but coming from a very different direction that most writings of its type. How?
First, it attempts to bring top-of-mind awareness to the horrible pain a suicidal cop inflicts on those he cares for the most. Certainly, there is his birth-family. But for me today, it will be his Brothers in Blue who will suffer in horrible ways that cannot even be discussed.
It will rip their guts from them. Some will be angry. Others will feel sadness at a depth previously unknown. They will be confounded, confused, puzzled, embarrassed and yes – pissed.
I hope to help shed a light on the path that leads to self-destruction. Even more important, I hope to show other cops how to use the skills they’ve honed on the street to sniff-out the upcoming tragedy. And prevent it.
We’re not perfect. But, we can do better. Let’s start now.
COP FUNERALS are about the most painful events I have ever experienced.
When talking about it with other officers, their sentiments are much the same. Over the years, I’ve pondered why these funerals are so difficult. There seems to be agreement that the pain is rooted in some or all of the following reaons.
- I feel duty-bound to attend. It’s the last gesture of caring and concern that I can show for my fallen brother.
- The officer, whose body is lying in the casket, in full uniform, could just as easily have been me.
- Depending on the circumstances of the loss, I might even wonder for a moment why I survived when he did not.
- The sound of the pipers playing Amazing Grace chokes my throat and fills my face with tears – no matter where I am when I hear it.
- I stand with fellow steely-faced officers at attention. Each one of us fears that he will be the first to break down and show the emotional anguish being endured.
Not too long ago, I participated in my first cop funeral where the deceased officer took his own life – with his service weapon. He was a well-liked and respected sergeant in a municipal agency of about 100 cops.
I knew only a couple of officers in the department at the time. The funeral was scheduled for Saturday morning with visitation on Friday evening.
Upon arrival at the visitation, I saw many new faces ranging from rookie cops all the way to the chief. I returned on Saturday for the funeral.
There was a palpable difference in the air making this funeral different than most. Yes, there was that sense of loss which ran deep. But, there was more.
The faces of this crew spelled out a variety of emotional pains. There were blank stares showing confusion about what these cops were feeling inside. Nearly all showed a high level of personal anguish. Their faces held many questions:
- How did I not see this coming? I am a trained observer. How did I fail my brother?
- Why didn’t the sergeant tell someone he was having problems greater than he could handle?
- Didn’t he trust me enough to be able to say something before he took his own life?
- Some of the cops acted as though it was not even possible that their sergeant capped himself.
- He was my brother. I would have taken a bullet for him without a moment’s hesitation, but I couldn’t save him from this.
- And yes, there was some anger that this sergeant would knowingly inflict this kind of emotional devastation on those who loved him, respected him, and worked side-by-side with him.
At the visitation, there was one very young officer who sat in the back and cried almost constantly. I learned later that the officer in question had been mentored and guided by this sergeant from his very first day on the job. They were very close and the young cop deeply respected and cared for that sergeant. He was hurting and felt betrayed.
HOW DOES SUICIDE HAPPEN?
Not literally, but mentally.
I recently talked to a young officer in my state when I sensed might be considering suicide. Bringing it up ain’t easy. It’s uncomfortable. But, there’s times a subject must be broached.
The response of this young guy was the same as I expected: “I would NEVER [emphasis added] take my own life. I wouldn’t even seriously consider it.”
That is a typical response. And they were probably uttered at some time by the sergeant whose funeral I attended. I can’t imagine that a cop, out of the clear blue, with little or no stress in life, would respond any differently to questions about considering suicide.
Graphic courtesy of LawOfficer
Yet, suicide takes far more cop lives than do Line of Duty Deaths in most years. Many departments don’t report the death as a suicide for fear of recrimination or loss of benefits.
Suicide becomes an option when a person is hurting, under a great deal of stress or pressure, and sees no other way to correct or bring an end to the problem.
It can close in on a person often without them realizing of what is happening.
Think of it like a trap set for a wild animal in the forest. A cage has food inside and there is a cone-shaped entrance that allows the animal in to get the food but then closes so as to trap it inside. That’s what often happens in suicide.
It can be difficult for others to see because frequently the person at the center often doesn’t see it for themselves.
By the time the person at the eye of the storm realizes that he’s been trapped, he feels helpless. He’s embarrassed that this could happen to the strong, sturdy, self-reliant cop who has helped hundreds or thousands of others over his career. The last thing he is inclined to do is tell anyone out of fear of exposing his own weaknesses.
I have trained cops in classrooms all across the country. They’re reluctant to even ask a question in a group for fear of looking ignorant. Yet, when alone in the car on the street, questions flow like a river.
How then can anyone be surprised that a cop would hide notions of suicide so closely that no one else can perceive that they exist?
By the time suicide is a real consideration, the subject’s mind is clouded. He is no longer objective. He probably can’t think of anything other than getting relief from the pain.
He doesn’t even consider the pain he is about to inflict on the very brothers whom he loves and trusts most: the ones at work. He is mindlessly about to create a scar so deep and so wide that it will never heal for most of them.
LIFE HAS TIMES OF CRISIS
It is inevitable. You cannot escape them.
- A few years ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. After surgery, the doctor told me she was terminal. Thank God, he was wrong.
- The stress of a marital breakup is very tough. If there are kids involved, it can be mentally and financially crippling.
- There may be the death of a loved one – like a parent. You have the job of handling the estate and its affairs.
- Today’s economy has left people in very difficult financial situations.
- It might be a critical incident. A close friend of mine was involved in an OIS where the shitbag was killed. It was a good shoot. Yet, it left my friend mentally awash for some time as he struggled with the fact that he had taken the life of another.
From big to small, you will face a crisis in your lifetime, and probably more than once.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO PREVENT YOUR OWN SUICIDE?
Suicide prevention starts first within each one of us.
This evil can come to anyone, without exception. Including you. You will know it has reared its ugly head long before anyone else. When it does, what will you do?
First, stop pretending that it can’t happen to you. It can. Every cop who’s capped himself said, “it can’t happen to me,” at one time or another. Believing otherwise is ignoring reality and is downright foolish.
What to do? Use the strategy you’ve been taught repeatedly – employ the WHEN / THEN approach to crisis situations and possible suicide.
Hang on tightly to other cops. They don’t need to be in your own agency. In fact, it might be better if they’re from somewhere else.
There are three guys on my list: a street cop from Michigan; a sergeant from Omaha; a senior agent with the feds based in Florida. They comprise my team. I talk or communicate with them frequently. They are my pals.
I share my work-related successes with them. And, I know that they are there when I’m in trouble. Now for a short war-story.
Some time ago, I was looking to make the move from part-time to full-time cop. I looked for agencies that have their own academy, believing that in this environment I could work the street and teach. Perfect.
I began the application process with Madison, WI PD. Through the testing and application process I was at/near the top of the pool. I needed to pass the physical agility test to be held in late January to be selected.
I’m a bodybuilder, so strength was not an issue. But, I have a deformed right knee. I had to learn to run to meet the requirements of the running component of the test.
I hired a professional to teach me to run. I was in physical therapy twice each week. I went to the gym 2 or 3 times every day to run. I ran in the swimming pool. I worked my ass off in preparation for about 3 months straight.
On test day, I aced every event, more than doubling the requirement for each item. Then came the run. I took off like a shot. About a third of the way into the run, I tore a tendon or ligament in my left foot/ankle. I was down on my face on the track.
I was devastated. I had my heart set on Madison. The recruiter had told me that I was the “perfect” candidate. But, now I was disqualified due to the injury. I was on crutches. My spirit was broken. I had to tell all of my friends who were rooting for me that I had failed. I was probably as close to suicide as I will ever get. Fortunately, it never became a serious consideration.
As I returned to the hotel, my wife saw the crutches and immediately came to my aid. I then turned to my pals that I mentioned earlier, telling them of my fate.
They ministered to me. One had his brother at my hotel within an hour offering help and support. The others sent repeated emails of encouragement. They were on the phone checking on me and just offering an ear. The reassured me that better things would come, even though I couldn’t imagine how. My brothers surrounded me (mentally, not physically) and held me up when I was most weak.
The WHEN/THEN approach requires that you consider and plan for the time that you will face such a crisis. It may come when you least expect it, but it will come.
I believe that reaching out to others to support me in my weak areas is a sign of strength, rather than weakness. I understand: there is fear when you expose a vulnerable area of yourself. “I’ll wait until something goes wrong, then I’ll ask for help.” It may be too late, then.
You wouldn’t commence learning to shoot only if/when you come under fire on the street. That would be crazy.
Figure out who is in your life that you are comfortable talking with. Who understands your sick sense of humor? Who will listen when you need an ear? Who are you willing to support, in return?
It might be one person. It might be more, like I have. I am close to the buddies who support me. I can tell them my inner-most thought and I am not threatened with worries that they will think badly of me. They are available to me whenever I need them.
I know they accept me and I am comfortable in our relationship.
FINAL war story: when the doctor told me that my wife had terminal cancer, one of my first thoughts was to bring my daughter home from college immediately to be with the family through the next few days of trauma. Problem was that her school was an eight hour drive away (one way).
I called one of my three pals from the hospital. He and another guy were on the road in less than an hour, delivering my daughter home the next morning. He wouldn’t even let me pay for gas.
I understand. We are men. We are cops. We fix shit. We don’t call someone else to do it for us.
However, when something on the street goes sideways, we call for backup, knowing in advance that it’s there.
WHEN / THEN thinking.
Apply the same to your personal life. Getting backup in place for the crisis times is no different than covering the shift with enough people to back you up. It’s not about being weak, but rather it’s about being prepared.
You might make it through the next crisis on your own. But there’s no awards given out on Judgment Day for going it alone. You wouldn’t walk into a bank robbery in progress without backup. Don’t try to walk through all of life’s challenges alone. It’s just plain stupid.
You are part of the biggest family on earth: The Brotherhood in Blue.
If you love them, if you care about them, don’t risk making them go to your funeral wondering why you didn’t reach out to them, wondering about how they failed you, wondering about how they will handle the tragedy that you’re putting them through.
Do it today. Do it now. Reach out. You will never be alone. Your brothers will lift you up. We are there.
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At the bottom line, it all comes down to saving just ONE life.
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Thank you for taking the time to read this message and allowing me to share my story with you. I can be contacted with questions or input: jim@CopBlueblog.com or at my home office (386) 763-3000.