824J? 824J for info?
The words slammed through my head as the voice, my voice, continued to search for 824J. No, I couldn't think of him as only a call sign. He was my friend Mike. A pleasant man who's soft-spoken voice had filled my headset for years. He had requested tows, warrant information and back-ups. That was all in the past now. All that is left of my friend, my co-worker Mike is the hushed voices talking about his suicide and the memories made haunting by silence.
Whenever an officer dies, despair washes over the entire law enforcement family, including those in the emergency communications center. If the death occurs in the line of duty, the loss is accompanied by a sense of valor. What about when the death is a suicide? "If an officer is killed in the line of duty, there is a drop in morale, but because of the funeral and the way we honor that officer, people heal," says Dr. Thomas Gillan, Director of the Central Florida Police Stress Unit. "In suicide, a lot of times other officers think that officer was weak, but deep down they miss their friend and co-worker."
According to the National P.O.L.I.C.E. Suicide Foundation, an officer kills him or herself every 17 hours. The number could actually be higher, but often the death is labeled accidental due to stigma, liability and survivor benefits. Regardless of the actual number, one is too many. Every suicide affects those left behind. "There is an incredible amount of grief that breaks down into segments," states Renee Meador, a retired Virginia officer and law enforcement In-service training supervisor at the Central Shenandoah Criminal Justice Academy. "It's a loss to the agency, the community, and the family. There is a sense of anger which is multi-pronged. Anger at the officer. How could you do this to us? Anger at the agency. Why didn't you see this coming? Anger at yourself. Why didn't I see it?" For dispatchers, this last question hits closest to home.
Dispatchers have a "mother hen" reputation. We tell officers what to do. We watch out for them. We make sure their status is correct. Officers recognize this nurturing relationship. Due to this, dispatchers are often the first ones an officer contemplating suicide might seek out. "A dispatcher somewhere saw the red flag," Meador says. "Officers go there to test the waters. They are looking to see if someone cares. We need to be training our dispatchers, as well as officers, what the red flags are."
What puts a dispatcher in a unique position to see the signs of suicide is the awareness which comes with the job and the relationship many dispatchers have with their officers. Although the depression preceding suicide is often aggravated by personal problems, work issues also often contribute. Dispatchers know when an officer is involved in a critical incident, and often if an officer goes to a call they find particularly troubling, like the drowning of a child the same age as one of their own, they will talk to the dispatcher about it. Through my career I have listened to many officers vent about a troubling call. Along with the work relationship, many dispatchers socialize with officers off-duty. Dispatchers see changes in behavior. A normally outspoken officer might become withdrawn, or one who usually takes care of him or herself stops going to the gym. These are all signs a dispatcher might pick up on. Also, hanging out with an officer makes a dispatcher privy to reckless behaviors, like excessive drinking or negligent sexual promiscuity. Even if you don't socialize away from work, an officer might express changes in phone conversations or MDT messages.
Every person is different, and sometimes no outward signs of trouble are displayed by a suicidal officer. No pat answer exists to what the red flags are, but knowledge of a few of the common ones might help a dispatcher save a life. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, someone contemplating suicide might display:
- Unrelenting low mood
- Increased alcohol and/or drug use
- Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks
- Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die
- Making a plan
- Unexpected rage or anger
This is not an exhaustive list. As a dispatcher, you might observe these signs in different ways, such as an officer telling you he doesn't have anything to live for or one who is usually very safe who starts going solo to dangerous calls. Any changes in behavior could be a sign. There are things a dispatcher who is concerned can do. Doing nothing is not an option.
"If an officer is suicidal, you need to be confrontive," says Dr. Lorraine Greene, manager of the behavioral health service division of the Metro Nashville Police department. "Don't be afraid to ask the question." Be prepared if the answer is 'yes.' Have helpful information on hand, such as resources within the department, such as Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or Peer Support Unit (PSU) numbers available. Also, know what resources exist outside of the department. Sites such as Tears of a Cop and The Heavy Badge all have excellent resources. Find out who the officer is close to, maybe a fellow officer or a family member, and let them know your concerns. You don't have to go to a supervisor, but you do need to seek help somewhere. A department chaplain is also an excellent resource. Most dispatchers won't sit back and listen as an officer calls for help on the radio, and do nothing. Handle a suicidal call for help the same way.
Sometimes the signs are missed or did not exist. When this happens and an officer loses his or her life at their own hand, survivors are left to heal. Support the officer's family. Support their co-workers. Suicide is a choice that person made. But, that choice does not encompass the whole person. Honor their memory. Be aware and have the resources. Hopefully, a next time won't occur, but if it comes up, be ready.