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Recent Twin Cities officer suicides place spotlight on stresses of police work

Star Tribune - 1/28/2020

Duane Fredrickson’s 23 years as a police officer were a carousel of horrors that haunt him to this day.

Countless shootings. Suicides. Baby-not-breathing calls.

He grew increasingly despondent and withdrawn, especially after his marriage collapsed and his police colleagues began shunning him for turning in a fellow officer accused of stealing. At times, he thought about taking his own life.

“You’re taught when you get on the job you’re supposed to be strong and you can take it and everything, but when some of these things happen, it’s kind of like a train going off the track,” said Fredrickson, who is retired and credits a support group for officers with saving his life. “You go talk about it with your buddies over a drink or you bury it -- and once you internalize over a certain point, it explodes.”

The recent suicides of two Twin Cities area police officers has again put a spotlight on the collateral hazards of police work, while raising questions for law enforcement leaders of how to persuade officers to seek help for depression and other mental health issues. Nationwide, officer suicides have outpaced deaths in the line of duty for years now, experts and law enforcement officials say.

South St. Paul police Chief William Messerich, whose department lost an officer to suicide in November, said some officers still believe that whatever they say to a therapist will get back to their supervisors or colleagues and could get them ruled unfit for duty. As a result, many don’t seek help, he says.

“Everybody deals with things in different ways; some people will hold on to that stuff and let it linger, and they’ll carry it with them for a long time, and others don’t,” said Messerich, who said he’s considering requiring biannual mental health checkups.

Before taking his own life on Nov. 5, South St. Paul police Sgt. Cory Slifko had a decorated 20-year career that had seen him land coveted assignments on the department’s SWAT team and with a regional drug task force, officials said. Slifko’s death came on the same day that Rogers police officer Blake Neumann, who had been at his job five years, also took his life. Minneapolis lost one of its own officers, department veteran John LaLuzerne, 52, to suicide in October 2018.

In Minnesota, the number of police medical retirements for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental ailments has risen steadily recently -- from six in 2006 to 40 so far this year, according to data from the Public Employees Retirement Association of Minnesota.

While much of the attention is focused on the impact of major incidents like a police shooting, the cumulative everyday trauma of deaths and other tragedies encountered on the job can be just as harmful to an officer’s psychological well-being, according to Rachael Peterson, a mental health clinician for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. Left untreated, the problem has been linked to higher rates of depression, divorce, substance abuse and infidelity, said Peterson, who runs the program out of a nondescript office on the second floor of City Hall.

“When you’re doing this day in and day out, the cumulative strain that that can take on one person can often overexceed their ability to cope at certain times,” said Peterson, who got into the mental health field after a 15-year stint with the Madison (Wis.) Police Department.

Hennepin County Sheriff Dave Hutchinson, who has made employee wellness one of the cornerstones of his administration, started a wellness support program after seeing the toll the job took on some cops at his former job with Metro Transit police, and how the problem often went unaddressed because of a culture that demands that officers “suck it up.”

After years on the job, some first responders develop PTSD, the effects of which can be brought on by smells, sights or even subtle sounds, according to psychiatrist Kaz Nelson.

“No amount of training is going to take away the sense of fear that somebody’s going to naturally encounter when they’re putting their lives on the line every day,” said Nelson, vice chairwoman for education at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Human beings are not built to deal with this kind of stress very effectively, even with good training and even if they’re good people.”

According to the Massachusetts nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P., officer suicides rose from 143 in 2016 to at least 228 in 2019 -- an almost certainly conservative tally that is still more than all other line-of-duty deaths combined, a trend that dates back to at least the 1990s. The rise in suicides reflect broader societal trends, with suicides among the general public having risen by about a quarter over the past two decades.

Part of the issue, experts say, is that mental health services and resources available to officers vary widely among police agencies nationwide. Most departments provide stress debriefings immediately after critical incidents.

But according to Resmaa Menakem, a clinical social worker, officers’ mental well-being needs to be a priority before he or she ever responds to a shooting or a car crash. And yet, many departments don’t address the secondary trauma from such incidents until after the officer’s behavior starts raising red flags, he said, pointing to research that suggests that such officers are more likely to use force against civilians.

“Everybody’s talking about it but nobody is putting resources around it -- they’re not making it structural, they’re making it episodic,” said Menakem, who has worked with several area departments, including Minneapolis. “You go to a scene where there’s been a shooting, whoever shows up, their names go to a database and somebody checks on them a week from now, and somebody checks on them a month from now, and checks on them a year from now.”

Growing awareness around the issue has resulted in changes in recent years.

Minnesota recently joined states like Colorado and South Carolina in passing laws to extend workers’ compensation to police and other first responders for mental health issues such as PTSD. And last year, President Donald Trump signed a bill authorizing up to $7.5 million in annual grant funding to police suicide prevention efforts, mental health screenings and training to identify officers at risk.

Some officers seek counseling on their own or go through their department’s employee assistance program, says Mike Glassberg, a Hopkins police sergeant, who is part of a metro-wide support group for officers who have been involved in an on-duty shooting or some other critical incident.

“Some officers are more resilient than others: Two officers can go to the exact call, whatever it is, and those two may have vastly different reactions,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that one person is necessarily weaker than the other.”

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