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July 24, 2014

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Police suicides called ‘a real epidemic’

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Courtesy of Clarke Paris

Clarke Paris, a former police officer who wrote the book “The Pain Behind the Badge,” gives suicide prevention seminars at police departments.

He used to believe that a police officer had to be tough.

By the numbers

The National Study of Police Suicides was conducted in 2008, 2009 and 2012 by Badge of Life. It is based on reviews of emails, monitoring of news websites and reports on police suicide, as well as input from current members of police forces nationwide. The study found that:

• 91 percent of suicides were by males.

• 63 percent of suicide victims were single.

• 11 percent of suicide victims were veterans.

Those most at risk: officers aged 40–44 who had served 15–19 years on the force. (The average age in 2012 was 40, with 16 years on the job.)

126 police suicides were counted in 2012, the most recent year of the study. Some experts think the number of police suicides is higher, due to non-reporting or differences in classifications of the death among departments.

Officer Scott Miller, whose name has been changed at his request, wore his beige uniform like a suit of armor. It was his job to tackle other people’s problems.

But years of responding to murders, stabbings and rapes took its toll. Having a front-row seat to the valley’s worst crimes began to eat away at his armor.

It started with the double murder of a mother and her baby, both stabbed to death in 2004. Miller saw their faces every time he looked at his baby daughter.

He tried to ignore the trauma out of shame. If he couldn’t help himself, how could he help the community he served?

But after six years, the pressure became too much. One day in 2010, Miller decided that his wife, children and the police department would be better off without him.

“I thought, at that time, this is the end of my life,” Miller said.

What to look for

Three-quarters of people who commit suicide show warning signs. If you or someone you know expresses suicidal behavior, it’s time to take action.

• Talking about suicide or wanting to die

• Reckless behavior, including increased alcohol or drug use

• Feeling hopeless, desperate, trapped, angry or anxious

• Withdrawal or sudden mood changes

• Giving away possessions

• Changes in sleep or eating habits

• Visiting or calling people to say goodbye

How you can help

• Start a conversation. Mention the signs you have noticed, and ask directly about suicide. Asking does not put the idea in someone’s head.

• Remove weapons, medications and other lethal means from the person’s reach. Create a plan to keep the person safe until he can get professional help. Get a verbal commitment that he won’t hurt himself before meeting with a professional.

• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at 1-800-273-8255. If the situation is critical, call 911 or go to an emergency room.

He tucked his children into bed and drove to the parking lot of a Mormon temple. He carried two letters — one for his wife, one for his children — and a loaded, non-police issue handgun.

Miller placed a picture of his daughters on the dashboard of his car, then held the gun to his head three times. But he couldn’t pull the trigger.

The next morning, he called his wife and told her he needed help. She called Metro’s Police Employee Assistance Program.

Today, Miller sees his uniform for what it is — a uniform. Reliving his mental state from four years ago still is painful, but he shares his story with other Metro officers often because it helps him, and them.

Miller’s experience isn’t unusual. In February, an off-duty Metro officer shot and killed himself inside a North Las Vegas parking garage. More than a year ago, an officer shot and killed his wife and baby before killing himself.

Even as a generation of scotch-swilling, tough-guy officers has been replaced with younger cops who are more accepting of emotion, police suicides continue at an alarming rate. Sgt. Tom Harmon of the Police Employee Assistance Program estimates that 25 Metro officers have committed suicide in 30 years. During that same period, five have died at the hands of criminals, he said.

National police suicide statistics can be murky because few departments report them, but the nonprofit Badge of Life counted 126 officer suicides in 2012. Bob Douglas, founder of the National Police Suicide Foundation, believes the rate is even higher. He estimates that two officers commit suicide for each one killed by a criminal.

“We have a real epidemic on our hands,” Douglas said. “Why would we think one of the most stressful jobs in the country would not have a serious threat for suicide?”

The Pain Behind the Badge

When former Metro Sgt. Clarke Paris was on the force, he used to wish someone would shoot him.

After years of responding to murders, suicides, dead bodies, rapes, robberies and other crimes, he spiraled into a depression and knew he needed help. He thought only a traumatic event would save him.

“Nobody ever said to Clarke Paris, ‘It’s OK to be OK. Just get help,’ ” Paris said. “(I only heard) if you freak out and there’s a dead body, you must be a (coward), you picked the wrong job.”

Paris shared his story in the book, “The Pain Behind the Badge.” He now travels around the country with his wife giving suicide-prevention seminars at police departments.

It’s rarely one traumatic event that pushes an officer to the edge, Paris said. More often, it’s the day-to-day calls that pick away and can cause the most danger.

Paris calls it “cop stew.” Every day, a new horror is added to the stew, but officers rarely acknowledge the pain because it’s part of their job.

“When we go to a call where there’s a body with no head and a bunch of dead people, we’re not supposed to struggle,” Paris said.

So officers often bury their emotions, which can then get compounded by stressors at home — the bills, the kids, marital trouble. Eventually, the stew boils over, leading to depression, addiction and, sometimes, suicide.

Harmon said the most important help an officer can get is talking about the problem.

“What most people try to do is avoid it,” he said. “After years of doing that, you run out of places to put those memories and experiences. That can really drag officers down over the long haul.”

Help in the ranks

Douglas estimates that only 3 percent of the country’s 18,000 police agencies have suicide prevention programs. Metro soon will join that minority. Harmon said the department has developed a suicide prevention program that is awaiting final approval.

Experts say most people contemplating suicide send signals for help. If Metro has to wait for the Police Employee Assistance Program to step in, it could be too late.

Instead, department officials will train supervisors about what to look for.

“I really think the key is leadership,” Douglas said. “That’s the reason why we’re wanting to develop this sensitivity enhancement model.”

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