Police officer suicides are finally beginning to get the public’s attention. It’s an issue that has been around for years, but never received proper support from the public. Not every police suicide is completely due to the stress of the job, but a combination of personal stress and job-related stress could be dangerous.
Throughout my career I’ve had relationships with several officers that took their own lives. Decades ago most departments ignored or swept these incidents under the rug. This is the story of two officers I knew personally who took their own lives.
Wesley was a young, attractive, intelligent rookie police officer. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, women in police work were still a new culture change to policing. I first met Wesley through a friend who happened to be her Field Training Officer (FTO). He was a seasoned veteran in his 40’s and she was the eager rookie in her 20’s. As far as FTO’s, she had one of the best.
We all know that we spend more waking time at work than at home. The time you spend in a squad car with your FTO magnifies this even more so. Most FTO’s know their boundaries and also realize the power and influence they have over a trainee. The dynamics between Leslie and her FTO would turn out to be the perfect storm.
As Leslie and I began to know each other, we would occasionally meet after work for pizza and beer, mainly discussing work-related issues. Her personality was very upbeat and made anything bothering you go away instantly with her positive approach to the job and life in general.
It was so difficult for me to believe the phone call I received from another officer telling me Leslie had killed herself.
I couldn’t wrap my head around what I was being told. This was the first time someone I knew had committed suicide.
After the initial shock, I bombarded the officer calling me with the usual barrage of questions, are you sure, what happened and why?
Several days before Wesley took her life she was involved in a serious car crash. She appeared to have lost control of her car and struck a utility pole. The crash caused several bone breaks and injuries to her face. No one indicated she was intoxicated, however most assumed.
I visited her at the hospital and noticed her upbeat personality was gone; she seemed very distant and sad. The doctors had told her she would make a full recovery with no scars to her face. I wrote her change in personality off as trauma from the accident and left it at that.
Wesley stayed in the hospital for several days. The day she was released she went home to her apartment, loaded her 9mm and shot herself.
An investigation followed and the facts that would soon surface would turn my world completely upside down. I would lose two close, dear friends that day.
Wesley had apparently begun a relationship with her FTO. He was married had kids and for all intents the marriage was stable and he had never strayed. The relationship wasn’t just a fling… it began to get serious. Her FTO told his wife he was leaving her and moved in with Wesley. I found out later from his wife that he had used me as an alibi. Allegedly we were meeting to play “racquetball” several times a week. I was pissed.
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The day Wesley crashed her car was the same day her FTO told her he was going back to his wife and family. He told Wesley he had made a mistake and regretted the affair. Unfortunately Wesley was extremely fragile and had fallen for him completely. The crash appeared to be her first attempt at suicide.
The department initially refused to let officers attend the wake in uniform or officially acknowledge her as a police officer. To their credit, her coworkers told management to piss off.
Wesley’s family held a private service. Most of us went to a local drinking hole and had an “Irish Wake” for her. As we all know, tongues begin to loosen up when there is alcohol involved. Information surfaced that Wesley had a prior relationship at her last job that ended badly. She was so distraught over that break up she sought professional help. This bit of information never appeared in her background. The fact that she had previously made a suicide attempt was never included in her files either. In essence, whoever did her background check didn’t do their job. The system failed all the way down the line.
If you could make a recruitment poster for your department, Gary was your guy. Hollywood looks, a tan year-round, a former top-tier college football standout. He had everything going.
As most young cops do, Gary showed his wild side early in his career. Booze, women, he was having the time of his life. He had a job that he loved and career that was on the rise.
At some point most of us level out and begin to want more stability in our lives. Gary finally peaked out and found the love of his life. The partying ended and he was head over heels in love. Gary was anxious to start a family. Unfortunately, the newlyweds soon found out that they couldn’t have children. As devastating as this was they decided on plan B: adoption. They adopted a beautiful baby girl and life was good again.
Whenever Gary went out for the occasional shift party he would show us new photos of his daughter and brag about her endlessly.
Everything was going well in his life, beautiful wife and daughter. He was on the cusp of making detective. Life was good.
We, as police officers, see lives change in a split-second. When we were new in our careers all of us at some point felt that we were indestructible. The tragedies we dealt with on a daily basis excluded us.
One morning Gary and his wife were woken by the alarm. It was time to get up and start the daily routine. As Gary’s wife sat on the edge of their bed she suddenly collapsed. Gary couldn’t wake her so he called 911. When the medics arrived they knew immediately she had passed. Without warning, with no previous medical issues or signs of any type of a problem, she suffered a catastrophic brain aneurism that took her life immediately.
Gary was now a single father whose life had been completely flipped upside down with the loss of his wife. Initially he was a devoted father, spending as much of his time with his daughter as possible. Yet, he still couldn’t overcome the loss of his wife. Gradually he began to lose touch with his daughter, spending less time with her and more time with Jack Daniels. He began hitting the bottle hard every night becoming less approachable and angrier as time went on.
One winter night we all met at a local drinking hole. We were having a great time exchanging stories that only cops could appreciate. Gary came staggering into the bar that evening. He was way over the limit, bumping into people, tripping over chairs. One of the detectives he worked with tried convincing him that he had enough, offering him a ride home. The anger welled up quickly as Gary reeled back and cold cocked one of his partners. The melee ensued. Some broken furniture a few bloody noses.
Word got back to the administration quickly about the bar incident. An internal investigation followed with some time off handed out to all involved.
Nobody really paid attention to the main problem. Gary was quickly sinking into a dark abyss. There was no employee assistance. Nobody really gave a shit. It was just the way it was.
A few weeks later Gary took a handgun, placed it in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Why am I writing this? Several weeks ago an organization devoted to first responders and their mental health issues opened a center called St. Michaels house. The opening of this center brought back those dark memories. If we had the same recognition and support years ago would Wesley and Gary still be here?
We’ve come a long way but still have a ways to go. Godspeed to those who are paying attention to something that has plagued our job for years.
“A lot of you cared, just not enough.”
― Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why
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