Two law enforcement officers commit suicide in Pierce County in 3 weeks

It’s been a tough couple of weeks for Pierce County law enforcement.

The sheriff’s department shared the sad news that one of their deputies took his own life on Friday morning.  That comes less than three weeks after an officer with the Lakewood Police Department died by suicide.

It’s a tough topic to talk about, but an important one, because suicide affects so many people.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides support 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255.  If you’re worried about someone you love, you can find warnings signs here.

A recent study of police suicides found an average of 130 police officers take their own lives each year, from 141 law enforcement suicides in 2008 to 116 law enforcement suicides in 2016.

The statistics hit home with the recent deaths of Pierce County Deputy Kory Shaffer and Lakewood Police Officer Aaron Grant.

“There have been suicides across the country in law enforcement, and we haven’t had one for a long time, and now that we have two in Pierce County in a month, two active duty police officers, it’s obviously something we’re all taking a look at,” said Detective Ed Troyer with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.  “If there’s a way we can help people, not only in our agencies but other agencies as well, we want to figure out what that is so it doesn’t happen again.”

Troyer described 47-year-old Shaffer as a well-liked, well-respected officer who’d been with the sheriff’s department for 16 years.

“Great family guy, great cop, just a well-rounded good guy,” said Troyer.  “And if this can happen to him, unfortunately it can happen to anybody.”

Officers are often at heightened risk of suicide because their jobs are not just physically dangerous.  Working in law enforcement takes an emotional and mental toll as well, due to the violence they see and the stress they deal with on a regular basis.

“Kory was part of a high intensity unit that was involved in extremely high intensity calls.  In fact, he’d been involved in a couple of calls in the last few months that most people don’t even go through once in their entire career.  He was the type of guy that could handle that, same with the rest of his unit.  So we don’t think that was it, but that’s something we’re looking into,” said Troyer.

Kory Shaffer took his life while in Yakima on department business with his partner.

The Lakewood Police Department said that Officer Arron Grant’ “lost his fight with mental illness and took his own life” on April 25.

“This is a hard loss for our Department and our community,” said Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor.  “It is a sad reminder that besides facing physical dangers, our people and other first responders also face a wide and difficult array of emotional and spiritual dangers.”

Any officer feeling a stress or a need to talk to someone anonymously should call CopStress and speak to a peer supporter.
 

Police officer suicide: it’s not just about workplace stress, but culture too

The inquest into the tragic death of former New South Wales police detective Ashley Bryant highlights the issue of suicide among police officers.

Central to the inquest has been considerations of how Bryant was treated by the police force and what – if anything – could have been done to prevent his death.

So, it is perhaps timely to consider the issue of police officer suicide, what factors contribute to suicide, and how the risk of suicide among police officers might be reduced.

Are police at high risk of suicide?

Policing is undoubtedly a highly stressful occupation, and suicides are a sad result. Compared with the general population, police officers face a significantly higher risk of experiencing threatening situations, violence, and traumatic events such as attending death scenes and fatal accidents.

It is therefore generally assumed that police officers are at a high risk of suicide.

Early research supported this theory. A study in 1963 found the suicide rate among police officers in the US was 1.8 times higher than that of the general public. It was widely assumed this was also the case in Australia.

However, more recent research has questioned this assumption, noting this difference may be the result of the particular demographic characteristics of police forces. That is, the majority of officers are male (around 80%) and aged in their early 20s to late 40s. These groups are also at the highest risk of suicide.

In studies that control for demographic characteristics, the difference in suicide rates between police and the general population disappears.

In Australia, the most recent figures identified 62 police suicides in the years between 2000 and 2012. This is a rate of approximately 11.4 suicides per 100,000 – a figure that is actually less than the suicide rate for the Australian population (12.7 per 100,000 people). Police may therefore be at no greater risk of suicide than the general population.

But this conclusion may be too simplistic when we take into consideration that police officers have generally undergone stringent selection procedures designed to identify individuals who are the most psychologically resilient, mentally well, and physically fit. Police officers are also engaged in regular, paid, meaningful work, and are likely to have access to healthcare services and benefits.

These are characteristics that research shows protect against suicide.

Given this, we might expect police officers to have a much lower rate of suicide than the general population. If this is so, then it is pertinent to ask what it is about policing that serves to raise suicide rates to higher levels than would be expected.

Factors associated with police suicide

It is often assumed that it is the effects of trauma, sometimes resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that drives police officers to suicide.

However, while trauma and PTSD are undoubtedly important, recent research has found that police officers also experience significant distress from repeated exposure to lower-level stresses. These include work experiences such as:

  • bureaucratic management styles;
  • insensitivity to personal distress;
  • unfair decision-making by managers;
  • seemingly arbitrary rules;
  • poor consultation with staff;
  • constantly shifting priorities;
  • increased workload;
  • shift work;
  • erratic work hours;
  • long periods of repetitive work; and
  • carrying out work for which officers are not adequately trained.

Additionally, issues such as a male-dominated culture that stresses macho problem-solving and denial of distress, and a pervasive fear among some staff that acknowledging distress will result in damage to their careers, are also linked to workplace stress.

Research also shows the quality of the treatment of distressed or traumatised individuals by an organisation strongly mediates the impact of trauma and the likelihood of suicide. In essence, negative treatment of a traumatised individual by an organisation compounds the effects of trauma – making suicide more likely.

Reducing the risk of police suicide

If police officer suicide is strongly linked to the cumulative experience of traumatic events, lower-level stresses and the manner in which officers experiencing distress and trauma are treated by organisations, then mitigation strategies have to acknowledge all of these factors.

Recently, police services have begun to set in place strategies designed to improve the response to mental health problems among their members, such as creating 24-hour assistance programs with direct access to mental health practitioners.

However, much of the focus has been on responding to major trauma and PTSD. While this is important, police also need to take account of the effects of recurrent exposure of staff to poor management and cultural stresses, and the stigma attached to mental illness within the force.

Certainly, educating staff – especially managers – into how to respond adequately to distressed colleagues, encouraging a culture of openness about mental health issues and removing any perceived stigma of personal distress would be useful strategies in this regard. They may reduce the risk of further tragedies such as Ashley Bryant’s death.

Trauma-affected police officer asked colleague to investigate death before suicide

As former police officer Ashley Bryant stood on the platform above a waterfall on the NSW North Coast he made a final phone call.

It was about 8.30pm on December 16, 2013, when he dialled the number of friend and colleague, Detective Inspector Matt Kehoe.

Mr Bryant, a father of three who had been medically discharged from the NSW Police Force a year earlier, sounded “clear and concise” as he spoke.

He said he wanted Mr Kehoe to investigate his death, something Mr Kehoe couldn’t promise.

“I knew from the call I got from him that if I made that promise to him, I knew what he was going to do,” Mr Kehoe told an inquest into Mr Bryant’s death on Wednesday.

Moments later Mr Bryant killed himself.

 An inquest into the 44-year-old’s death in the NSW Coroner’s Court is examining what support was given to the detective sergeant as he struggled with post traumatic stress disorder, depression and alcohol abuse.

The inquest will also examine whether the police force needs to change the way it assesses the risk of officers developing mental health issues and how it supports former and serving officers with psychological injuries.

As a “hard-working” police officer with 24 years experience, who had responded to many murders and suicides, Mr Bryant knew every 000 call was recorded.

This was one of the last numbers he dialled before ending his life west of Byron Bay.

“I understand this is being recorded and I suffer from PTSD,” he told the 000 operator in a chilling call played to the inquest.

“I now live with the trauma of it and I know this will go to the coroner. There needs to be more things put in place for partners of those that suffer … ”

The operator asked Mr Bryant if he could wait for police to get to him.

“No, I’ll be gone before they arrive, thank you,” he replied before the line went dead.

Growing up in the Mid-North Coast town of Port Macquarie, Mr Bryant was an athletic teenager who spent his spare time surf lifesaving and training with his older brother.

He earned the nickname “ice man” at the police academy because he drank ice water while everyone else downed alcohol, the inquest heard.

That changed after he joined the police.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Ian Bourke, said there was clear evidence that Mr Bryant struggled with the affects of PTSD, depression and alcohol abuse in the lead-up to his discharge from the force in 2013.

Over the years he went from going off alcohol completely to downing up to 10 drinks a night. At one point he had his police firearm taken off him after he was aggressive towards work mates.

Mr Bryant spoke to some about the traumatic jobs that haunted him.

There was the drowning of husband and wife, Carole and Joseph Sherry, at South Ballina Beach in 2010 and a murder-suicide at Casino.

He had also worked in the Unsolved Homicide Team, including on the high-profile cold case involving Sydney teen Trudie Adams.

In 2012, Mr Bryant was working as a detective sergeant at Ballina police station, which was understaffed and overworked, the inquest heard.

The NSW Police Force were notified about his PTSD in March that year as he was treated by a psychiatrist, psychologist and GP.

It was around this time he sent Mr Kehoe, his superior the Richmond Local Area Command, a text message.

“I just can’t stomach this job any more, I need some time away,” Mr Bryant wrote on March 13, 2012.

Over the next few months, Mr Kehoe checked in on Mr Bryant, meeting him for coffee in Byron Bay and walking the iconic lighthouse track.

Asked about how Mr Bryant felt around this time, Mr Kehoe said: “He was at least looking forward to the future outside of the police.”

In December, 2012, Mr Bryant was medically discharged from the police.

Then he awaited a decision on whether he would get an early superannuation payment, which depended on how his level of disability was assessed.

In 2013, a psychologist on behalf of the superannuation fund assessed Mr Bryant as someone who could return to work in a job less stressful than police work.

He would get partial remuneration, not full.

His brother, Jason, a former police officer who left the force with psychological and physical injuries in 2009, said insurers assessing Mr Bryant’s injury claim were getting him down.

“He said words to the effect of how he was changing case officers all the time and he was worried about where he was going to end up financially,” Jason said.

Mr Bryant was staying in Lismore at the time, in student accommodation, after moving out of the family home in Port Macquarie.

Hours before he died, he had a psychologist appointment with his wife, Deborah. She told him he could move back home if he stopped drinking.

Mr Bourke said Mr Bryant stood up, said words to the effect of “I can’t do this any more”, and left the room.

He then “must have driven directly to Minyon Falls”, Mr Bourke said, getting beer and a bottle of scotch whiskey on the way.

The inquest before State Coroner Michael Barnes continues.

 

Original Story

Divorce Rate and Police with PTSD

Who will take care of our officers with PtSD? 

Their families? I know mine would have if they knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was.  Your average or normal person cannot share our experiences, they can’t imagine what we do or see.  Many officers try to treat their condition with alcohol or reckless behavior.  They use the alcohol to turn off the noise, shut out the visions, and thoughts.  As a result they use reckless behavior to punish themselves and sometimes push themselves to the point of suicide.   Where was the family?  The family was along for a ride they knew nothing about.  A ride they didn’t expect or want.

 

In a recent Time article, the Divorce rate in the United States has dropped to a nearly 40 year low.  While this is true, there is data missing. Most researchers find that the typical marriage has a 50% chance of lasting. 

In police officers with PTSD, it’s a different story.  The police divorce rate is much higher than the national average.  Some reports have the divorce rate above 70%. No one knows the true number since many cases of PTSD go undiagnosed.

Experts say PTSD has harmed many families, “We see higher rates of divorce, family strain and social isolation,” reports Dr. Ash Bender, medical director of the psychological trauma program at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, “You lose your ability to feel pleasure and love”.

At no fault of the spouse, since many officers and families don’t know the symptoms of PTSD, they only observe the marriage as failing, or that the officer has changed and has become more angry, distant and combative; the spouse in many ways becomes frustrated with the relationship and finds a way out.  Sometimes justified on their part, the officer’s actions can include extreme alcoholism and physical abuse, characteristics that were never present in the relationship prior.  

What are the issues?

The abuse does not always manifest as physical abuse, but can also be psychological.  Often, officers with PTSD look for outlets to relieve the pain and issues with daily life and PTSD. Frequently that’s where infidelity, alcohol and sometimes drug abuse comes in.

Many times, the family does not know about the PTSD because it does not always come from one traumatic incident.  PTSD can develop over time into cumulative PTSD.  The day in and day out of seeing the pain of others, the death of adults and children can take a toll on the officers.  In addition to the stress of kids, bosses, bills and all other aspects of normal life, it builds up. 

Each person is different in how they deal with the stress, but sometimes the officer and spouse never realizes the PTSD at any level.  This often ends up in divorce and the breaking up of families.

Untreated, this adds even more stress to the officer with PTSD.  Officers often choose two routes, isolationism, keeping to themselves or, acting out.   The officer that acts out can be even more dangerous to themselves in some ways.  Many times, they will drink and get into fights or, drink until they pass out trying to forget the battle they are fighting in their minds.  On average 120 officers a year commit suicide. It’s also estimated that 70% of all officers that develop PTSD end up in divorce, in financial ruin, and are separated from their department within five years.

What can be done?

In conclusion, early understanding with the officers and families is crucial.  Learning the signs of PTSD even in the preliminary stages can do much for the officer, the families, the department, and society.  Officers that develop full-blown PTSD create divorce, broken homes, financial issues that cost everyone.  These officers can even strike out at work causing troubles with their department and possible financial obligations for taxpayers by way of legal claims. 

It’s very important that all officers, both new and the ones that have been on the job for years, understand the signs of PTSD not only in themselves but their partners, and how to seek help at all levels.  It’s also important that significant others understand the job and the signs of PTSD.  With early detection and support it is possible to avoid divorces and broken homes. 

Most police departments have psychological personnel that can help the officer, but many are reluctant to go that route.  The other routes are personal consolers, peers, and groups like CopStress.  CopStress offers anonymous peer to peer support and information on how to deal with PTSD.  

 

About the Author:

Rick Willard is a retired Detective Sergeant from the Baltimore City Police.  In his 20 years in law enforcement he worked in patrol, drug units, and HIDTA DEA Taskforce.  After being promoted to sergeant he oversaw a drug unit, was in charge of a non-fatal shooting squad, developed the city’s Gun Trace Taskforce, and ran a specialized unit building cases on murder suspects that evaded prosecution.   While he was developing cumulative PTSD from the violence officers see on a daily basis his full blow PTSD did not develop until Ash Wednesday of 2005 when he was involved in a shootout with a suspect.  His life spiraled out of control and it lead him to over 3 years of counseling and reading many books on PTSD and how to treat it.  He along with several others started CopStress to offer peer support to officers. He is currently the Chief Operations Officer overseeing peer support, training, and rapid response to critical incidents around the country.

Toronto police memorial will now include officers lost to suicide

Police officers who die by suicide in Toronto will soon have the same right to have their names included on the Memorial Wall as those who die by physical on-the-job injuries.

CityNews has obtained details of a settlement between the Ontario Human Rights commission and Toronto police, which outlines how and when police must end what the Commission has described as “discrimination based on disability.”

There has been debate for years as to whose name qualifies for the Toronto police memorial. Both the police brass and the union have blocked attempts to include the names of officers who died from job-related suicide.

Thursday’s settlement is a result of a claim filed by the family of Sgt. Eddie Adamson, who died after one of the darkest days in Toronto police history.

On March 14, 1980, Adamson’s partner Const. Michael Sweet was shot to death during a botched robbery and hostage-taking inside a Queen Street restaurant.

Sgt. Adamson never recovered. Twenty-five years later, in a motel room surrounded by articles about the tragedy, Sgt. Adamson shot himself. His widow Linda Adamson told CityNews in an interview a number of years ago, “Ed died that night. They didn’t kill one officer, they killed two. My husband just took 25 years to die.”

See the full story on Eddie Adamson below.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has now given Toronto police six months to “develop a process for the inclusion of names on the Memorial Wall.” That process, the Commission says, “shall be issued by the Chief of Police no later than Oct. 31, 2017.”

This doesn’t mean that officers who die by suicide will automatically have their names included on the wall, but it ensures “equal opportunity for inclusion as the names of members who die from physical injuries.”

In a statement, obtained by CityNews, the Chief of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Renu Mandhane, says the settlement will ensure that “all members who lose their lives in the line of duty are treated w

ith the same degree of recognition and respect.”

Original Story