Michigan State Police, Buena Vista police talk about high suicide rates among officers

GENESEE COUNTY (WJRT)- (01/08/19) - Police work is one of the most dangerous and stressful jobs in the United States.

They are in the line of fire every day, the job itself is not the biggest threat to their lives.

Less than a week before Christmas, 58-year-old Terry Strawn, a nearly 30-year veteran with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department in Florida shot and killed his wife, daughter and 6-year-old granddaughter before ending his own life.

Strawn's suicide may have been shocking to some, but not to those who wear the blue uniform everyday.

"We have had several suicides within the Michigan State Police over the years," said Michigan State Police Lt. Dave Kaiser.

Kaiser, a 35-year veteran of law enforcement, knows all too well the struggle officers can have, coping with the horrors they face see daily.

"Had a partner that underwent some martial problems. He also had some drinking problems, which he got help for," Kaiser said. "A short time later, he had a relapse and he took his own life. We thought he was past that. We thought he received the help he needed, but apparently he wasn't."

According to a new study done by Blue HELP, a nonprofit run by active and retired police officers, for the third straight year more officers took their own lives in 2018 than were killed in the line of duty.

The study shows 159 officers died due to suicide while 144 died in the line of duty in 2018. In December alone, 20 officers died by suicide compared to 10 line of duty deaths.

"I feel sad, I really do. I think that a lot of people really don't understand what police officers go through on a day to day," said Buena Vista Township Police Chief Reggie Williams.

He has 23 years under his belt. He said it can take its toll.

"You're looked at as the one to be the answer to everything, you're the hero or the villain. It just depends on the situation. But all of that, I think, weighs on us in some type of way, " Williams said.

Barb Smith is the executive director of the Barb Smith Suicide Resource and Response Network.

"We take care of their physical safety, but we don't take care their mental safety," she said.

Her group works with officers to not only teach how to deal with grief stricken people at scenes, but also how to mentally recover themselves.

"Probably, No. 1 is increased alcohol and substance abuse, more risky behaviors, not protecting themselves from like they normally would have, more anger and agitation, really feeling hopeless and not feeling their success. there is really self value in the work that they do, because most officers proud of their work right. And when they start to feel defeated in some way, that could also be another sign, " Smith said.

But more and more, resources are being made available for those who seek help before it's too late.

"We have a behavioral science section and we have four licensed psychologists and two assistants and they are available to MSP and our families 24 hours a day," Kaiser said.

"Not enough of us, use those services. And I know that in the past, that it may have been frowned upon for officers to reach out for help because we are seen as being strong individuals, but I commend those who do," Williams said.

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