POLICE WEEK 2019 is underway. Washington D.C. is abuzz; cops are everywhere.
Tens of thousands of cops. They’re swarming like bees!
The airports have greeting units from all over the country. They await the arrival of brother cops and survivors. They have all come to this national event in honor of a friend or family member who made the ultimate sacrifice.
We follow the annual ritual of getting on the Metro or taking a cab to our hotel. The lobby has been converted into a cop reception area as guys get their room assignments and stow their gear.
Accurately describing the scene is tough. The emotions of the moment make the air electric with anticipation of what is to come. There is also the heartfelt thrill of grown men back-patting, grinning and hugging one another.
It is clear that these men have acquired battle scars together and emerged with a mutual love and concern for one another. This can only be the result of having endured life-threatening events together.
Soon enough, the entire group will stand at the entrance to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
AND SO IT BEGINS …
We arrive at the Wall. Everyone is quiet out of respect for the fallen. They remain solemn and wide-eyed as they search for …
- Names they know that were engraved in previous years
- Names that are newly engraved
- Familiar faces of friends whom they haven’t seen for a year – or more
For those of us who have made this walk many times before, we fearfully anticipate that this walk will feel ‘old’ and maybe a little boring.
Rest assured, that never happened. Never once in more than a dozen years. Each year, the experience is fresh. It is new and unlike any year in the past.
Then come those moments where time stands still as I come upon that name on that Wall … it stands out from all the rest.
There it is, Christopher M Wouters.
Logically, I think to myself that I shouldn’t cry. Wouters EOW was all the way back in the year 2000. Logic aside, tears are running down my cheeks.
I was not terribly close to Chris. He was an acquaintance in an agency where I had been conducting one-on-one in-car training with their street cops for the previous couple of years, or so. So, why does this loss have such a hold on me?
Here’s why: I was a brand new, fresh out of the wrapper cop at the time. Wouters was my first cop funeral.
I could never have known how painful … no, I didn’t have a clue about how emotionally crushing that funeral would be. It remains so to this day.
Over the years, I have learned that most guys can vividly recall their first cop funeral. OK, I get it.
ALL COP FUNERALS ARE TOUGH
I’m told that cops remember them all. Each and every one. I do. Each one has a story. Each brother who died took a piece of me with them. After Chris, there was:
Jason Makowski Jennifer Fettig
Kevin Marshall Matt Bowens
Jessie Nagle-Wilson Mark Sawyers
Lew Stevens Tye Pratt (Omaha PD)
And more …
With hundreds – maybe thousands – of other cops at each funeral, I stood at attention, trying to hold my tears. I recall an airplane ride to and from Omaha by myself to honor a fallen brother.
In 2018, ONE HUNDRED, SIXTY-THREE (163) of our brothers and sisters in blue gave their lives so that you and I can live comfortably and freely in our communities.
This Monday night, the Vigil will be like a funeral for all 163 cops at the same time. Think about that for a moment.
It tears me up, every time.
SADLY, THERE’S MORE . . . A LOT MORE
There is another group of officers, that is even larger than the first, who died last year but their names aren’t etched on the Wall. THEIR NAMES WON’T EVEN BE MENTIONED.
According to the best information we have, ONE HUNDRED, SIXTY-FIVE (165) of our brothers took their own lives, last year.
Read that number again: 165 our Brothers are gone.
That number comes from BLUE H.E.L.P. which is a reasonably new organization dedicated to recognizing cops whom we’ve lost to suicide. MORE IMPORTANTLY, they are taking concrete steps to reduce the number of cop suicides in the future.
SHORT WAR STORY
Have you ever known a cop who took his own life?
I have. Two of them. One of them was just a year ago.
The cop in question had taken a hiatus from the J.O.B. for a few years. He was in the process of returning. At the same time, he was helping CopBlue to grow and get stronger.
My phone rang while I was eating dinner one evening. I was advised that our crew member had been discovered near death in his home. He was rushed to the hospital but, within a few hours, he was gone.
Those of us left behind were stunned. I recall our first staff meeting after it happened. I thought to myself, “What should we say? We should we think? How should we act? How are we supposed to feel?”
I still don’t have the answers.
SHORT WAR STORY #2
A prior experience was with the suicide of an active LEO. It happened about ten years ago in a South Florida agency.
I had been doing extended on-site training of the agency’s patrol cops on using a new computer-based citation program. The Sergeant in question helped me in many of the classroom sessions. He also scheduled the one-on-one in-car sessions out on the street.
This particular Sergeant had 15+ years on the job. He was divorced and lived alone. He was generally pleasant and easy-going.
One Saturday afternoon, my good buddy (‘Chewy’) called to say that the Sarge had, “… capped himself at home. It was discovered by a unit doing a welfare check when he failed to show up for work that morning.”
I vividly remember the wake – the night before the funeral. I arrived to find the only people in the room with the casket were cops from his agency. There was a handful of small groups scattered around the room talking quietly.
I heard the usual suicide-survivor comments/questions, e.g.
- Why did he do this?
- Why didn’t we see the signs?
- What could we have done?
What sticks with me most is this: in the back row of seats, was a brand new rookie. He sat alone and was quietly sobbing for the entire time. He talked to no one, just kept crying. I was advised that the late sergeant had been this officer’s first and final F.T.O. Understood.
The fact is that we cops are no more adept at dealing with the suicide of one of our own than civilians are with their own friends and family members.
THE GRIM REALITY OF THE MOMENT
As of tonight (May 12, 2019 at 2100 hours), there have been forty-one (41) Line of Duty Deaths reported so far this year. Make no mistake, every one is a crushing loss to our Brotherhood.
At precisely the same moment in time, BLUE H.E.L.P. reports that seventy-eight (78) cops have ended their own lives.
AT THIS RATE:
One cop has died every 40 hours by his own hand.
That means there has been one cop dead every 1.6 days from suicide.
The fact is this: by the time we get up on Tuesday morning, another cop will probably have killed himself.
PLEASE stop and think about that.
WHAT THE HELL ARE WE GOING TO DO??!
Attitudes about the emotional strain of cop work must change. This isn’t “somebody else’s problem.” It is ours, and ours, alone.
YES, WE ARE TOUGH AS NAILS.
- We fight and protect others
- We are the declared guardians of the weak and sick
- We are the warriors who will do battle with evil
NO, WE ARE NOT INVINCIBLE
- Each one of us must tune-in to our brothers
- Take interest in their lives and their wellbeing
- We must ask questions of them about how they are doing
- We must offer and ear or a shoulder without judgement
When one of our own is struggling, we should circle the wagons. Keep that cop protected from the outside world to the best of our ability until they are healed. In short: keep them protected until they regain their strength.
LOOK FOR THE TRAITS & SIGNALS
- Is one of your guys a bit more quiet than usual?
- Has one of the guys been MIA at work or after-work events?
- Is someone acting stressed or short-tempered?
- Is there someone complaining about home-life or money problems?
Don’t be afraid to reach out. Even if the individual involved says that they are OK, conclude your inquiry with something like, “If you ever need to talk, I’m here for you 24×7.”
Over the years, when I have taught a class or spoken to an LEO group, I close by reading a letter that I found on the Wall a few years ago. Here it is:
TO: Officer Joshua Mathew Williams
FROM: Your daughter, Lisa
I am 13 now, and am really growing up fast. I’m very different, looking like a young lady. My mouth looks like the front end of a Cadillac because, you see, I have braces.
I am playing soccer this year and I was in the school play. I just had a small part, but I did my best, because that’s what you taught me to do.
Johnny is 10 now, and he really makes me mad sometimes. But, Mom says that I have to be patient because he’s my little brother and we all need one another. We’re doing OK, but I know that Mom really misses you. I see her sitting in her favorite chair looking at your picture. I think she cries sometimes.
We miss you, Daddy, and we wish so badly that you could be here.
P.S. Thanks for taking the time to paint the pictures of the sunsets, Daddy. They are hanging in the hallway. I see them every morning when I get up. They remind me of you and how lucky we are to have a Daddy like you.
It is a touching letter, no doubt.
Now, think of this: if a father takes his own life because he is overwhelmed by the mental stress of police work, then …
- What can the child of a suicidal cop say in a letter?
- Where can he/she post the letter?
- Who is available from our Brotherhood to comfort that child?
WE are a family.
WE are doing God’s work.
WE love one another as God has loved us.
WE leave no Brother behind.
PLEASE reach out. The “little clues” are often the only ones that will be sent.
DON’T wait. Do it today. Do it now. Your brother needs you.
At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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Thank you for taking the time to read this message and allowing us to share this moving message with you. Our editor can be contacted via email with questions or input: Email Editor