The breaking point.
At Roll Call a short time ago, one of the guys on the CopBlue crew put it out there, “With all of the bullshit going on out there, a lot of our brothers are getting near their breaking point. We should do another series on cop suicide in an effort to head off some of the stress.”
So, here we are. As of today, July 9, 2020, 88 of our brothers have taken their own lives this year.
Yesterday, I learned of the most recent: Officer Brian Pilaski of the Orange City (FL) Police. Veteran, about two years on. It’s a small group of about twenty cops. They lost a female sergeant to suicide just a couple of months ago. Can you even imagine the mental condition of those who remain at OCPD?
THE PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES is simple. I hope that those who read this will look around themselves – at roll call, in the locker room, on scenes and any other place cops are together and ask this simple question: ‘Is anyone acting differently?’
The may be angry … or happy … or depressed … or a million other moods that humans can have. It’s not that the mood is bad. Rather, it’s different than what you’ve come to expect from this guy.
Then, what do you do? THAT is the question.
This, then will be a very different approach to cop suicide. It is NOT meant for the cop who is struggling; it is meant for the cops who surround him every day – most often, at work.
We must recognize the horrible pain a suicidal cop inflicts on those he cares for the most. Certainly, there is his blood-family. But for me today, it will be his Brothers in Blue who will suffer in horrible ways that cannot even be discussed or measured.
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 an upcoming tragedy. And prevent it.
We’re not perfect. But, we can do better. Let’s start now.
Over time, I have read numerous articles that are meant for the eyes of cops who are struggling to keep their lives together. Writers on this topic should be blessed. They rarely know if any of their work has actually kept any of us alive. Yet, we only need to save just ONE life to make it all worthwhile.
On the flip, there have been some pieces written for those left behind by the deceased officer. And, in those cases, lots of those articles are intended to help the Brotherhood deal with a loss, after-the-fact.
I hope these to set a new course: HOW CAN YOU SNIFF-OUT A STRUGGLING COP AND HELP THEM BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE?
Fair notice: this will be written in plain, blunt, straight-forward cop lingo. No big words to impress others. No abstract ideas that feel good but accomplish nothing. One cop to another. “Cop-to-cop,” as my friend John would say. Let’s go.
BUT OFFICER, I DIDN’T SEE THE STOP SIGN
We’ve all heard that excuse. Fact is, human beings have an innate ability to tune-out and ignore things we consider routine. (Just ask my wife.) That tendency is discussed in a recent article (The Myths of Multi-Tasking).
The name for it: Ambient Awareness.
We take stuff that we do often and put a low priority on it. We pay attention to it only occasionally or in a crisis. Here’s an example: driving. Think of a new sixteen year old driver versus you or me. The new driver has their eyes glued to the road. Us: not so much.
Traffic cops continue to be surprised at the multitude of activities some people try to combine with driving.
Now, let’s apply the notion of Ambient Awareness to the tactics we use when greeting fellow officers in routine situations: locker room, roll call, on a scene, etc. We greet them and go on about our business.
We do this pretty much the same way, every day.
The exception might be if someone shows up with a cast on a body part or following a critical incident which had been plastered all over the news. THEN, everyone pays attention to the details of the involved cohort.
CALL THE ORKIN MAN
Let’s pretend. Imagine that you are the SRO in a local high school. You’ve been assigned there for a while and know your way around. Work life has pretty much slipped into the Ambient Awareness stage – at least as it relates to the other adults in the building.
Then, you get word from the Street Crimes Unit that the assistant principal is suspected to be dealing drugs. Not enough evidence for an arrest, but definitely enough to raise your antenna. Think of how your attentiveness will change whenever you are in the presence of the suspect or when you hear his name come up in conversation – no matter where you may be.
The assistant principal no longer falls into the Ambient Awareness category. Get the picture?
You will now be like the Orkin Man as it relates to this guy – as well you should.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO COP SUICIDES?
Occasionally, it is important that we take a fresh look at those around us. It is not because we consider them a suspect. Rather, we need to be looking with an eye to noticing anything which, “doesn’t fit their normal style.”
Think of the first visit to a new customer site by a pest control outfit. They are looking over, under, around and through EVERYTHING. Nothing is off-limits. We need to be doing the same thing with our brothers. We’re not looking for insect varmints, but rather infections of their mind. There are many ways that trouble can show up. Here are a few to consider:
- Unusual behavior, e.g. a loudmouth who becomes quiet.
- Change in appearance or style, e.g. unplanned weight gain/loss, add/lose facial hair, noticeable change in clothing tastes.
- Attitude changes, e.g. long-time upbeat extrovert becomes cynical and seems to find a negative aspect to everything / everyone they encounter.
- Repeated negative talk about home-life involving spouse or kids.
- A married copper who has always taken his business home is now hitting on females out on the street (or in the bar) looking for some action there.
- Think of the colleague who suddenly stops participating in small stuff, e.g. lunch with co-workers or getting a beer with the crew at the end of the shift.
- Do you have someone who no longer attends events outside work, e.g. an awards banquet, shift party, and blames their wife for their absence?
- Think of coworkers who are having serious health issues personally or with someone in their immediate family.
- There may be a crew member having financial trouble or in the throes of ending a marriage (not the trial marriage, but the real one).
- How about the cop who has NO PLANS to be with anyone special for Thanksgiving or Christmas?
- Finally, there is the typically happy guy whose face has been wrinkled-up way too often lately over seeming bullshit issues.
Stop for a minute and think. No one (or even two) of these items is cause for putting the subject under 24 hour surveillance.
WHAT IT IS: notice for you to pay attention to this person. Take him/her off the Ambient Awareness list. You’re a trained observer. If you were dealing with a dirtbag in the projects, your training and experience would lead to an appropriate response. Use those same skills here.
REAL WAR STORY
(Note: I have the permission of the subject to write this. Of course, names have been changed.)
A few years ago, I was asked if I could conduct a training class or two on the topic of computer-based crash reports for a very small agency near my home. Uniform patrol had about 25 members.
That evolved and resulted in me on a ride along frequently in addition to other station visits. I could help train their new hires and it gave me time on the street which I viewed as vital to staying fresh in my teaching and writing.
I took notice of Sgt. Josh, a WM, 33 yrs, physical build of a runner / cyclist. On every visit, his ass was glued to a chair in front of a computer screen. Though he was polite, idle conversation was not his strong point. Something didn’t feel quite right, but I kept it to myself and continued to observe.
Sgt. Josh told me on one visit that he had been assigned the job of creating all of the written policies necessary for the agency to gain accreditation by CALEA. The sigh and visuals which followed made it clear: this was NOT where he wanted to be. The beehive world of the P.D. was swirling around him and he was stuck in a chair.
Shortly thereafter, he was made Administrative Sergeant. From then on, he was the person with whom I would schedule training and ride alongs. Nice enough guy, but something still seemed wrong.
We grabbed lunch one day. Just the two of us. Out of the station, Josh told me how he had sustained permanent injuries a couple of years previously in an on-duty vehicle crash. The effects were growing worse. Were that not enough, he had just been diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer which – though not fatal – could only be “managed” for the rest of his life. All this at 33 years old.
Josh had a wife and two young children at home. He was miserable.
CAN YOU HEAR THE SILENT SCREAMING, YET?
It’s important for you to be able to relate to someone’s situation in your own life. Let’s recap: Josh is not someone who was very close to me. We were acquaintances through work. Am I some kind of super-sleuth detective? Nope. Did Josh wear a sign on his back saying, “Kick Me.” Negative there, too.
I can now look back on my relationship with Josh and his family over the period of about three years. Happily, I can say that Josh will do just fine. He took some real hard kicks to the balls on a few occasions over those tough three years. But, when the kicks came, I was at his side. He never stood alone.
To the immediate point: How did I suspect that Josh might be on the edge back then?
After learning what was happening in his life, I simply gave it this consideration: HOW WOULD I FEEL IF I WERE IN HIS SHOES?
I knew it wouldn’t be a good place for me. It wasn’t a very good place for Josh, either.
No magic. No psychology degree. Good ears. Time in thought and prayer. Common sense. Love of/for my Brother.
You have everything I had. You can do the same for someone else. You must first notice that another person in your life might need you – maybe in a way they never have before.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The next (and final) article will lay out what was done to get Josh through one of life’s most difficult tests. As I said earlier, Josh is aware of this series and has blessed it. He hopes it will help someone else.
He also said that he may be able to contribute what this was like from his perspective.
As I look at it, much of what has been done regarding Josh was the use of skills I already possessed – as a cop and as a human being. I expect that you have them, too.
The only question: will you put them to use toward the end of: Saving just ONE life.
“Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “
We couldn’t agree more.
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