Is suicide a scary word? I wish you had been there. The day I failed as a leader and sent my employee home to commit suicide. I will never forget the day two of my most senior officers walked him into my office. I will call him Dave for this article, only to protect his memory for everyone that knew him.
Dave was obviously under the influence of something. He was lethargic, flaccid and his words were slurred. He’s not drunk, that I knew after 20 years as a street cop myself. This was narcotics of some kind; my police Captain was impaired, while on duty. At first, I was furious, how could he do this on duty? I then learned from one of the two other officers that were helping him that Dave had some marital problems and was having a difficult time with it. He told me that he had been given some sleeping pills to help him sleep at night, something he had not done much of in the previous few days.
I Knew I Was Missing Something
As I stood there and watched Dave sway from side to side, being helped by his two buddies, I had serious doubt I was hearing the full story. I knew as a supervisor and the leader of the organization, for whatever the reason, being impaired while in a police uniform and carrying a gun was never acceptable behavior. I also knew today was not the day to address it with him.
I’ll Talk to Him Tomorrow I Thought
He barely knew where he was now. I asked Dave if he was telling me the truth, about the not sleeping, he said yes. I asked him to look me in the eyes and tell me he was not trying to hurt himself…he smirked and said no. I thought for a moment, then believed what he was telling me. I directed the two officers to take him and his police car home and get him to bed. They did exactly as I instructed. I thought momentarily about taking his duty weapon for safekeeping but set that aside when I thought about how that makes a police officer feel when part of their identity is removed. I quickly dismissed the idea.
The following morning was nearly as identical as all the others. That day however, myself and my boss were interviewing candidates to become the new Commanding Officer of the office which I was about to vacate for a new HQ assignment. We had several interviews scheduled and began them on time at 8am. The second candidate on the schedule was Dave, who in my opinion was the leading candidate given his tenure with the agency and the local office. He had been my #2 in command for some time.
At 8:15 Dave had not yet arrived for his scheduled interview. I began to wonder what might have happened for him to miss this especially important interview for promotion. Did he have car trouble? Might he have had to stop for an unforeseen emergency on his way into work? All possible…but something was not sitting well with me after the previous day’s encounter.
Waiting To Hear
I instructed the same two senior officers that had taken Dave home the day prior, to go back out and check on him. They did so immediately. About 8:45 I received a call from one of those two officers and said they had found Dave in his home, deceased on his bed from a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest with his service weapon. The two officers unfortunately had seen this scene before and knew what needed to happen from a law enforcement perspective. They began the difficult process of making family death notifications, informing the Medical Examiner and processing the scene. Dave had taken his agency issued identification cards, equipment and uniforms and skillfully placed them in his patrol car, knowing his colleagues would have to collect them. This indicated that Dave had thought this final action through and prepared for it.
Suicide Is Real
As a leader of any size team, division, or organization there comes a time when you wonder how you could have missed something so obvious as an employee suicide. This was not a missed deadline, or a poorly written contract. It was not an upset client, an invoice that went unpaid, a delivery missed or even a product not meeting a customers need. Today we experienced the death of an employee. A friend of mine and a leader to his peers. It was a direct result of my having failed him when he was asking for help. I merely sent him home to sleep it off. How had I missed this? Why did I fail him on that day? Suicide was a scary word to me and I chose to ignore it.
I must tell you this is a true story. It happened under my leadership and I take full responsibility for my actions. It has now been almost 16 years since the day that Dave took his own life and I continue to learn ways to better deal with it. Nothing has worked with any real success.
Is suicide a scary word? Should we acknowledge that it’s a very really a thing? Or are we better off just ignoring the word, the action itself and the results, as something that happens to other people and to those with “real” problems in life? That [suicide] certainly couldn’t happen to anyone I know or love.
The stigma that surrounds suicide is enormous. The stigma within the law enforcement family is taboo and never discussed. Police officers who die by suicide is triple the number killed while on duty. Law enforcement officers are in rare company in that they are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession in the world. 167 law enforcement officers tragically took their own lives in 2018.
So, was Dave merely another statistic in this long list of suicide deaths by law enforcement officers? Not to me, not to our agency and certainly not to his family. Dave was a father, he was a son, he was a husband to his wife and friend to many.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Recently I observed a very unscientific survey taken in a Texas classroom of law enforcement officers learning about critical incidents and trauma. The question posed to the 24 officers seated in class who were from a variety of local, state, and federal agencies; have you ever seriously thought about committing suicide? Amazingly 19 of the 24 officers in that classroom had seriously considered committing suicide. When the instructor read off the numbers and percentage, every officer in that classroom sat in silence. It was mind boggling to think about.
Dave’s story is not too different than that of so many others. The stressors of working in a profession that requires your complete attention and tests your survival skills nearly every day. Our profession expects us to be a counselor, priest, parent, law enforcer, legal professor, and able to make split second decisions on life and death matters without mistake. The media and citizens stand at the ready to critique our every move and post on social media or national news without any sense of what is fair and right to the officers.
If our stressors in work are combined with normal life stressors everyone deals with, such as marriage, family, bills, mortgages, life in general, any single thing can become more than a person can handle. It’s then that they may look for ways to stop the pain. Do you think you can recognize the signs? I hope you can.
What Can You Do to Help?
Understand that mental health awareness must be part of any organization’s commitment to its employees. One does not need to be in law enforcement to know that every job has its stressful aspects that are cumulative when added to everyday life stressors. Deadlines, sales quotas, investor portfolios, travel, meetings, government regulations and laws and so on. What will you and your managers, supervisors and leadership team do to help your employees deal with their stressors, be it personal or those placed on them by your organization? Does your organization have open discussions about mental health awareness? Do you provide resources to your employees to seek help if they need it? Do you have a policy or procedures in place on how to deal with mental health issues and even traumatic events should they happen in your workspace? Understand talking about suicide is scary at times, but it’s a conversation we must have.
Suicide Is Very Real
So is suicide a scary word to you? As you’ll learn in additional upcoming posts, this was not my only encounter with an employee’s suicide. This trauma unfortunately is one of many I’ve had to face and one of many that has had a profound impact on my life, personal wellness, and professional career. Learn from what I’ve seen and experienced to help you build a more resilient mental health awareness program. It’s an investment in your organization and most importantly in your employees. Their life may just depend on the action you take today. Make contact with Matthew Brandt today!