This column continues the conversation about law enforcement suicide – and the story of three officers whose lives intersected for less than hour but were changed forever. Keith lost the battle with his demons that day, but for those on scene, the battle was just beginning.
Keith had a great sense of humor, believed in fairness and justice, loved his family and wanted to help officers that were struggling. He also struggled with depression in the last few years of his life and had seen at least three of his fellow officers’ complete suicide. Because of that, he publicly advocated on their behalf and sought inpatient help for himself. He was aware of his issues and shortcomings, yet through it all, he offered to assist anyone who needed it “when the demons come calling.” He understood PTSD and addiction. He knew about the challenges of finding appropriate help. He also knew that asking the wrong person for help at the wrong time could cost him the career that he loved so much. All too often, a first responder’s identity as a competent professional can become tarnished by the impression they are “weak” for seeking help.
Despite this understanding, he drove to another jurisdiction and completed suicide in front of the very first responders he wanted to help. In front of a group of strangers who were, at the same time, his brothers and sisters, people who could identify with and understand him.
All first responders on the scene were required to complete a debriefing within 72 hours of the incident. In the meantime, however, they had to go back on the road and complete their shift. Of the approximately twenty-five responders present, three went home directly from the scene. While some on scene were able to compartmentalize the incident and move on, others encountered difficulty in doing so. EAP was offered, but many people wouldn’t use it. It was part of the department and they were fearful of the career repercussions of admitting they had been affected.
None of Karl’s shift supervisors were on scene that night. He immediately reacted by punching a vehicle and swearing. His emotions ran the gamut from anger to guilt. Two weeks later, the emotional fallout from what he witnessed was becoming overwhelming, leaving him with the sensation of someone sitting on his chest. Six weeks out, his reactions remained about the same, but there was little to no follow-up from his department to see how he was coping. Having dealt with previous personal and professional traumas, Karl was adept at burying things as a way to cope. He wasn’t one to reach out for help or talk about his problems as he didn’t want to appear weak to family, friends, or co-workers. This incident, however, triggered something in him. Something he couldn’t bury deep enough for him to move forward.
This time was different. He saw himself in Keith – the age, the experience. Too many things. He didn’t want to get to the same point as Keith did. He knew that if he left it alone it would fester and get out of control. Karl knew this because he had watched his body cam footage of that night more than once trying to find out what they could have done differently to change the outcome. He found that they did everything they could.
“It was textbook. We couldn’t have done it better. It was perfect. Part of us feel like failures because people don’t call us to pull the trigger, they call us because they want us to help them and get them out of their situation. We didn’t do that this time.”
For the first seven days, he saw him pulling the trigger every time he closed his eyes. He lost sleep, had nightmares and flashbacks. He didn’t want to talk to anyone because he didn’t want to put those images in someone else’s head. He eventually realized he needed help and called an outside organization for it. “I had to reach out for help before I was forced to. I owed Keith that much. I thought it was weak, but I did it because I needed to.”
Matt scanned for the people he believed were most affected and offered them assistance. He called and texted as many people as possible in the days afterward. The next day, a deputy was so distracted that he left his car in drive and it hit a building. Matt made sure he was matched with the appropriate counselor and tried to convince him that letting it bother him didn’t make him a bad cop.
Personally, Matt felt like he was a cold-hearted SOB. He had learned to work through things on his own. He attended the debriefing, but he is one of those cops that knows he is okay, he really is. Some of them are, some of them can work through it. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to predict how people will react. Every circumstance and every individual is different.
Evaluating this situation and it’s bearing on the future of everyone on scene is a tremendous task worthy of more than an article. It’s a way to understand what is happening to our first responders. For instance, does the geographical area in which this happened have a high incidence of first responder suicides, or was this an anomaly? We don’t know because the data is unreliable.
The words of those who bore witness to his last act are significant:
“I hate that he did this, but I understand that he had problems. I’m sorry he did what he did. I don’t think poorly of him, I wish I could have helped.”
“Cops don’t want to hear from other cops that they are suicidal. We’re not supposed to be like that.”
“It’s hard to understand the route he took. Calling us, waiting for us to respond, wait almost an hour to actually go through with it. Why?”
“I wish it had taken place in a different location. Because we all have to carry his baggage for the rest of our lives in addition to ours.”
“We don’t think about it because we don’t talk about it. We have to make people aware that it’s not unusual for us to have emotional trauma. Law enforcement as a whole needs to consider it a normal side effect of what we do. It’s not normal to pull dead babies from a pool. I never thought much about it until now.”
“We’re not supposed to feel that way.”
There is so much to learn from this tragic day, but will we? It wasn’t covered in the news. Another first responder completing suicide in a public place wasn’t deemed newsworthy. What does that tell us? Was it to protect the privacy of the family? Not to disparage the memory of the dead? Or was it to protect the agency? Other LEO suicides have been covered locally, even nationally at times. The reality is that the ones that do get coverage are because most of them were embroiled in some sort of controversy. There was no controversy here, only contradiction and inheritance.
An officer tragically took his life. Another officer he knew took his life, and an officer they knew took his life. With each pull of the trigger, countless other first responders inherited the trauma that was carried by the one committing suicide. That is the irony of these strings of tragedies, that the relief sought from each trigger pull is followed by an exponential increase of trauma. Each responder that witnesses these seemingly endless responder suicides becomes contaminated by the traumas released by the final act of the one in pain.
The contradiction is two-fold – Keith’s actions and the actions of the departments that employ our police. Keith fought hard against his burden and the burden of others, but he lost, and we will never know why. Keith’s agency lost as well. Though they, by all accounts, tried to get Keith help to deal with his issues, they ultimately failed to do so. Was it because they failed to see the warning signs despite having had the misfortune of dealing with this very same problem years prior? Was it because they waited to help until it was too late? Was it a shortcoming of the resources available?
Sometimes, despite being at the end of their rope, the person seeking to end their pain by committing suicide still has a heart for helping others, especially those who would come after them, experiencing the same pain they are in the midst of. In 2013, Officer Paul Buchanan completed suicide in his station. He left a note stating “make my death an issue so you can get help for other people like me…”Was Keith hoping for the same when he chose to take his own life in front of brother and sister officers?
As for the departments involved with this incident, some of the officers stated there has been no follow up by their superiors since the incident. This would seem unbelievable, but it becomes more so when coupled with the knowledge that some of these same officers who were on scene for this LEO suicide had also recently been on the scene of a horrific and very public mass shooting. Even the average citizen would acknowledge that these officers were in obvious need of more than just a debriefing. Logic says they would need routine follow up, access to resources both inside of and outside of the agencies, and at least a touch of empathy from agency leadership. It cannot be stated enough: we need to be better at this. We need to accept that what these responders do and see on a daily basis is not normal. There is no “normal response” to these repeated traumatic exposures. They cannot be dismissed as just another day at the office – by the profession or by society. The time has passed for conversation. It is time for action –for lifesaving interventions that can only be created if we have the evidence to direct our steps. One way to garner that evidence is by encouraging individuals to confidentially report first responder suicides. The more we know, the better the tools we have to win the war – and every battle matters because every life matters.
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