Military and Police

Deadly Duty for Law Enforcement Saddled with Other Stark Shadows

I started composing this piece over one month ago, on Christmas Eve. As I have in the past, I got derailed by the sensitive and deeply personal subject matter. Recently, a material release by Blue H.E.L.P. (Honor. Educate. Lead. Prevent) provided a jump-start of sorts; not pleasant, but necessary. Blue H.E.L.P. is a law enforcement-specific group dedicated to staving off further loss of police lives to the starkness we tacitly recognize and for which we have no failsafe: police suicides.

Before we folded the 2018 calendar to open up to January 2019, America tallied 150 law enforcement officers killed in line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), according to the Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP). Of the various officer-fatality categories, the usual top two causes of police deaths did not shrink: 52 were due to gunfire while 26 stemmed from automobile crashes. We either get killed trying to “get there” or we are murdered once we arrive. However, of the fifteen classifications ODMP uses to chronicle police fatalities, the category which surpassed all LODDs and yet is not even listed is suicide.

The proverbial elephant in the room looms large; as it is in the general sense, police suicide in particular is indeed a fragile subject to conceive let alone expose to the masses. Not only for police agencies but for law enforcement colleagues and victims’ families to digest and carry forever, hauntingly wondering what cues were somehow missed. I am among this demographic.

According to the latest statistics released by Blue H.E.L.P, 159 cops took their own lives in 2018. What they mean to say is that there were 159 police suicides in 2018 or, rather, 159 that we know of. Given the stark subject matter and humanistic tendencies to quietly grant dignity regarding such a still misunderstood act often followed by misguided judgments, it is likely the number is higher. Presently, there is no established official database tallying police suicides. Last year’s 159 we know of because they were either highlighted by cops taking their lives in/on police premises (capturing the attention of the media) or it “got out” some other way.

As Behind the Badge put it, “There were no broadcast funeral processions or memorial services for them.” The first part is accurate, the latter part is meant well but miscommunicated. Memorials are held for all of them, just not in traditional police funeral fashion. Close friends and families convene for funeral services. The last one I attended did have a good portion of the police force on hand to provide the traditional police funeral rituals: Honor Guard, 21-gun salute, police procession to/from the church before caravanning to the cemetery. Red/blues leading the way, red/blues flanking the procession’s end. With advance notice provided, county sheriff’s deputies helped bottle-off side-street traffic flow for scant minutes.

More and more police suicide forums are popping up, attempting to subdue demons harboring inside police officers, cops deeply troubled by virtue of what they see and experience on the job as well as the growing cop contempt they try to process while off duty.

By personal/professional constitution, cops are very adept at discretion…and that may be a part of the epidemic. Keenly guarding business-related secrets for rightly-placed confidentiality reasons may actually transcend personally doing so instead of baring the soul for analysis, cleansing and salvation. Law enforcement truly is a niche profession. Whereas horror-buffs eagerly run to the movie theatre to cling to each other while Jason lurks at summer-camp sites, cops report for duty and routinely expect terrors to present at any given moment…except they’re not covered in popcorn and lights do not go on after about two hours. 

That entrenched expectation of the worse-case scenarios is a horror in and of itself, leading to a life of unease and a mind rife with unmitigated depravities left for beat cops to unravel and somehow motor on unscathed.

I’ve studied police suicides for several years now; resolve seems elusive. It seems to be one of those insurmountable aspects of human existence which does not necessarily have an answer, not a clear-cut one. But we keep trying because, as purposed professionals, we expend efforts to save folks from others…and themselves. How we do that is the complex part, for which there seems no one-size-fits-all application. Without offense, I believe we blink too much. I believe we trust our brothers/sisters are holding their own, and that may be the inherent problem. We trust too much…until it is too late to have a more thorough evaluation of a being’s bottled tumult.

There is also the “stigma” theory which I discount not at all. Slowly, however, law enforcement agencies are evolving whereby programs and personnel are implemented to overcome the stigma associated with dark thoughts and, more important, exposing them with open arms extended.

Two of the most recent batch of police officers killed in action were buried mere days before I started to write this material. Chicago police officers Conrad Gary and Eduardo Marmolejo spent their final seconds chasing down an armed suspect and were killed when, while avoiding one passing commuter train, they were struck from behind by another. Police administration and media reports all held that both officers pursued that bad guy so his gun would be off the streets. Exponentializing that factor places increased weight on Chicago cops’ shoulders; it stands to reason.

The church eulogy for Officer Gary is defined largely by his police colleagues and his daughter whose words were as follows:

A tribute to our fallen heroes, Officer Conrad Gary and Officer Eduardo Marmolejo.#WeWillNeverForget

Posted by Chicago Police Department on Sunday, December 23, 2018

Whether in the line of duty or from police suicide, the deaths of cops nonetheless share the sentiments you just heard. Leading up to December 2018, when these two warriors fought the good fight yet didn’t rise up from the ground, six Chicago cops took their lives. The punctuation continued into 2019, when a Chicago police officer killed himself a mere 48 hours into the new year.

Police suicides steadily climb while the stale rhetoric remains in the mouths and minds of many. This taboo topic has been festering for many years. I do not profess to have the ideal answer; I hate my own rhetoric. I’ve been in laced boots standing on sacred grounds for purposes I could never have imagined or fathomed with any academic or experiential prowess. The avoidable act. The folding of the flag. Glances expressing pain while not a solitary word is uttered. The lowering of the casket. Although the initial shock of a police suicide subdues some, the void lingers. The same questions loiter in the heart, mind and soul…perhaps a taste of what the decedents endured before leaving an unwritten epilogue.

Declaring it a mental health crisis, professional counselors started banging the nail directly on the head, dissecting police suicides among a law enforcement agency which has had its fair share of anti-cop vitriol coupled with rampant violence which they must somehow assuage with scant support: Chicago PD, responsible for the land of strict gun laws and ostensibly untenable lawlessness. How do police put a plug on such an urban volcano? Some cops apparently bottle-cap themselves, until implosion culminates in a lifeless form resigned to all which was thrust upon it for far too long from way too many corners loud with vile hatred and degradation. I won’t even broach the subject of politics; you know that score.

The professional element knows and accepts this routine with a certain degree of navigable nature, yet the human factor may be too dutifully subjected to a constancy which whittles away at the very core of cops. Indeed, all police officers confront the same ugliness and do their best to circumvent the same obstacles, pushing through to the next call. I’ve had my duty days where I felt the buckle under me while others wearing an identical badge seemed to plow unscathed. But we are not all identical. We as a species are vastly different, with varying mindsets, coping mechanisms (diminished capacity or lack thereof), and methods of filing things away. As a profession, we are only homogenized by the oath, badge, firearm, uniform, and enforcement of the statute book.

As I close this article, yet another Chicago police officer was chronicled in the Cook County medical examiner’s office ledger. Over the weekend, she awaited an autopsy after being found dead in her vehicle in an alley near where she lived. Preliminary reports speculated the 47-year-old Chicago off-duty cop’s cause of death stemmed from a self-inflicted gunshot:

Per the Chicago Sun-Times, “An autopsy conducted Sunday didn’t rule on the cause and manner of her death, with results pending further studies.”

If I respect Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson for nothing else, I do grant kudos for his admission that he too was in a dark place, scattered with pieces of dire straits, before reaching out “late one night” to an assistant chief. He launched his police career in 1988 and, whether wittingly fused to his eventual dark experiences as a young policeman or not, describe features of chronic gunfire growing up in Chicago’s notoriously violent Cabrini Green neighborhood. He called the gunplay in Chicago “not normal.” Indeed! He also believes Chicago has a bum (gun) rap. He hears how terrible his police department is on the daily, which means his cops are also privy to such sentiments. (Incidentally, the comments section in that short vid colorize how Chicagoans feel about their police force, a small sampling of what CPD are subjected to.)

Psychology says if we are told something often enough, we start to believe it; the conditioning process. Is that the vehicle at work in Chicago, perhaps related to its string of suicide casualties stemming from the urban war the cops are battling among a resentful populace?

Professionally, Superintendent Johnson sought help years ago and now serves as the major urban metropolis’s top cop, having saved him from himself.

If only others…

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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