Photo Courtesy: Newstimes.com
There was a time when the typical response to a funeral for a police officer who committed suicide was “What funeral?”
Few officers would attend such a service, and those who did often left their uniforms at the station. There was no color guard or burial with departmental honors.
“The theory was that you were glorifying suicide,” said Danbury (CT) police Chief Patrick Ridenhour, a 29-year veteran. “The old-school mentality was that it was the easy way out.”
There was no sense that either of those two things was the case on Friday, at the end of a difficult week for the Danbury Police Department, which lost a 38-year-old sergeant to suicide.
At mid-morning, a half-mile of Main Street kept solemn silence as a color guard and a block-long column of police officers stood witness, with military-style reverence, to the death of the old school.
“Now we realize that was wrong, and that the officer suffered from an illness,” Ridenhour said. “We realize now that how (officers) die is irrelevant with regard to how we honor their life and service to the community.”
The chief’s comments, backed by a national police suicide prevention group and by a leader in the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, reflect an increasing awareness here and across the country of the need to support officers’ mental wellness.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Connecticut plans to encourage officer wellness programs and suicide prevention initiatives this month.
“The hard truth is that every year far more police officers take their own lives than are killed in the line of duty by criminals,” U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly said in a prepared statement. “Police work draws people of exceptional courage and humility, but far too many officers suffer in silence, unable to seek the help they need.”
The truth is that for police suicides unanswered questions are the norm.
“We did a study in 2012 and in 85 percent of officer suicides there was no reason,” said Ron Clark, a retired Connecticut State Police sergeant who helps run Badge of Life, a national police suicide prevention nonprofit based in Middlebury. “No suicide note. Nobody saw it coming.”
Clark says the nationwide average of 130 police suicides a year is far too high for a profession that screens candidates with psychological and background checks to insure good mental health at the time they’re hired.
His hope, as it is with every police suicide, is that dialogue in the Danbury and nearby departments will not only raise awareness about officer wellness but will lead to preventive action – such as officers getting annual mental health checkups.
“In my time, we wouldn’t have even been talking about this,” Clark said of law enforcement a generation ago. “But you can’t deal with a problem unless you know what type of problem you have.”
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