BOLO: Being on the Lookout to Preventing Police Suicide – An Interview with Marcia Williams

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We continue our conversation with Marcia Williams, peer support specialist with Safe Call Now, to learn more about this organization and its unique network of services it provides to public safety professionals. 

Click here to read part 1 of this interview.

 
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): You’ve talked with a number of police officers and other first responders during your time with Safe Call Now. Looking at them from a holistic point of view, what strikes you about the calls you take? 

Marcia Williams: Since I started volunteering for Safe Call Now, I have talked with approximately 150 first responders who had called the crisis hotline. Even though each caller had their own unique stories and they had distinct needs, the one thing that united them was the fear of speaking up and reaching out.

It’s gut-wrenching to hear how my brothers and sisters in blue can’t talk to anyone because of the lack of trust and fear of losing their job. They don’t trust their administration, their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), nor do they trust talking to their own personal doctors about the demons that have taken up residence in their heads. The Sound of Silence in Law Enforcement is an epidemic, nationwide.

From the beginning of time, Police Officers have it drilled into their heads to be fearless.  We are conditioned to conceal our emotions and to disengage. Not only while we are going through the police academy but also throughout our career. Cops are programmed to be robots, in a uniform. We must remove the stereotype of what a police officer is ‘suppose’ to be vs. what a police officer actually is. A human being.  We bleed, we cry, we hurt, we laugh, just like everyone else. The perception that cops shouldn’t have, or display, emotions is what leads to a dysfunctional police culture. 

What do you think the repercussions are when a police officer suppresses their emotions? Imagine your brain being assaulted over and over with re-occurring events on replay. This will more likely cause psychological injury which then leads to physical injury.

Like thousands of officers across the nation who are dealing with demons, it becomes difficult to ask for help. Cops are eager to help others but hesitant to help themselves.  Many are in denial or straight up afraid of the unknown. Being a cop exacerbates underlying issues and puts additional stressors on someone who is already going through personal problems.  I will tell you this, if the demons are left unattended, they will fester and when they fester, they will eventually kill you. It took me an attempted suicide to realize I needed help. We all need help. It is just knowing when to ask for it before it takes a physical and mental toll on the mind and body. The silence cannot continue.

 

~~~~~

It’s gut-wrenching to hear how my brothers and sisters in blue

can’t talk to anyone because of the lack of trust and fear of losing their job.

~~~~~

 

JCH: Talk about what happens when someone calls Safe Call Now. What happens? 

Marcia: When a first responder calls Safe Call Now (SCN) they will be greeted by another first responder. But not just any first responder. They may get an active police officer, a retired police officer like myself, a retired firefighter or medic, corrections officer, or even a dispatcher.  You need it, we got you covered.

Each of our Peer Advocates is highly trained in Online Support. We are para-professionals whose primary functions are to listen, assess, and refer. We have all had intensive training provided by Safe Call Now, not to mention our own personal and professional life experience that we bring to the table.

When a first responder/ Police Officer calls the hotline, they will usually require one of three services.

  • One will be the need to have a Peer to Peer conversation. We get a large number of calls after a first responder underwent a horrific critical incident. Many develop emotional toxic shock, an unusually intense reaction after post-disaster. Many have a difficult time understanding the aftermath and feel uncomfortable discussing their emotions with their spouse, family members, or other co-workers due to being ridiculed or not being understood. Having another first responder to talk to helps comfort them in knowing what they are experiencing is normal and talking about it is the first step to self-care.

 

~~~~~

If the demons are left unattended,

they will fester and when they fester, they will eventually kill you.

~~~~~

 

  • The second service a first responder may need is a Trauma Therapist — but not just any Trauma Therapist. Safe Call Now collaborates with Serve and Protect (S&P), a non-profit that was also created by a law enforcement officer, now retired. Once we, as a Peer Advocate, have determined a caller would benefit from a Trauma Therapist, we contact S&P and they then locate a therapist that specializes in treating first responders in their hometown. This is usually needed when a first responder has experienced years of trauma throughout their career and self-care is ignored. Unfortunately, when anyone represses their emotions over a course of time, it is inevitable that there will be repercussion. Instability in relationships, self-destruction, and even their job will become jeopardized with spiraling abnormal behavior. It can also countercheck the emotional strain as well as prevent the accumulation of frustration, anger, and helplessness, which could possibly promote alcohol abuse, depression, domestic violence, and suicide.

 

  • Which leads me to, what I think is the most crucial service a first responder can receive. That is being referred to an in-patient treatment center. SCN partners with highly reputable treatment centers throughout the United States who are aware of the unique needs of first responders. The key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is to be able to recognize a problem exists in the first place, to put faith in those who believe in you and have the courage and strength to drive forward even when a small piece of you wants to give up. I can tell you this, lives have been saved because SCN exists.   

 

~~~~~

We must remove the stereotype of what a police officer is ‘suppose’ to be

versus what a police officer actually is.

~~~~~

 

JCH: It seems like people don’t talk about police suicide very often…Is that changing though? 

Marcia: “The dirty little secret isn’t a secret anymore”  

Just five years ago, you wouldn’t have heard much about police suicide. Department’s were documenting suicides as “accidental deaths’ to prevent scrutiny within their organizations or to protect the family’s reputation. Within the law enforcement community, it has finally been acknowledged that police suicide has become widespread throughout the world and action had to be taken to address this nationwide crisis.  Suicide does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone at any time.

Police suicide still isn’t being discussed nearly as much as it should. Even though the stigma has diminished, seeking counseling or treatment is still taboo in many first responders’ eyes. They are reluctant to talk because they don’t want to ‘burden’ their family and friends with the ugly side of life that cops see. The dark, sick humor, isn’t appreciated or they may think if they just ignore talking about work, they are doing something good when in fact all they are doing is aggravating the problem. While being a Peer Advocate I have learned that some of the reasons police officers tend to keep to themselves and avoid reaching out for help are because of the following reasons:

Sign of weakness or can’t handle the job

Fear of losing their job. Being told they are ‘Not fit for duty”

Denial. Don’t think they need help or can handle it themselves

Lack of trust within their Employee Assistance Program or Behavioral Health System

No one understands them

Lack of knowing where to go for resources

Knowing all this, why do we still have police suicide? If it isn’t a secret as to why our first responders are staying silent then you don’t think it’s now up to the law enforcement community, administration, and government officials to take a step back and figure out how to break that wall of silence down and start praising those who are suffering that do speak up and reach out?  

 

~~~~~

If an organization wants

to truly take responsibility for taking on the task of conditioning healthy police officers,

then it must start from the top. What’s that saying? “Lead by example.” 

~~~~~

 

There are many motives that can make somebody feel like there is no way out of a situation other than, ending their life. Many would say we need to raise more awareness about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and how it has yet not been acknowledged that cops even develop the illness.  PTSD is not the main cause of suicide, but it is a factor in depression and untreated depression is responsible for most police suicides.

Let’s look at some other factors that need to be brought up. An officer may want to commit suicide due to a dishonorable deed they may have done. Any officer who has been terminated and is awaiting a jail sentence due to some horrific crime, such as rape or sexual assault will cause humiliation and shame to the officer and to their family. 

Financial distress may be a reason for suicide, believe it or not. When you have a man, who is the primary breadwinner, who can no longer provide for their family, it wouldn’t be uncommon for them to contemplate suicide due to shame and pride. Any cumulative trauma over the course of time will cause psychologic damage but what about the acute trauma?

What happens to the officer that gave 30 years of his/her life behind the badge? Who is there to teach them how to transition into living the civilian lifestyle? There is no book or app on how to go from being a cop for 30 years to waking up and now being a civilian. Unless someone has experienced that EXACT feeling, they will never understand what that person is going through. Not their spouse, not their family, and guess what? Not even their co-workers who are still working will never understand. So where does that leave them? It leaves them all ALONE. They become “The Forgotten.”  Hmm, I am curious what the statistics are of retired cops that had taken their own lives. Who is tracking those numbers?

‚Äč

You asked if talking about police suicide has changed. The law enforcement community has progressed in propelling police suicide to the forefront, but I would say we’ve only scratched the surface on developing innovative strategies on how we can truly end police suicide.

 

~~~~~

We are in an era where we can no longer turn the other cheek or turn our backs on our peers. 

When a co-worker is in pain and is displaying bizarre behavior,

it is our duty to step up and step in.

Sometimes we are all they got. 

~~~~~

 

JCH: How is Law Enforcement culture changing to better support their officers and first responders? Could more be done?

Marcia: More can always be done to better support police officers and other first responders when it comes to promoting self-care. If an organization wants to truly take responsibility for taking on the task of conditioning healthy police officers, then it must start from the top. What’s that saying? “Lead by example.” 

Organizations that have leaders who demonstrate support for improving awareness, education, and putting preventative measures in place will have positive, long-term effects from their officers. When administration provides better working conditions, treats their officers like humans, not robots, and rewards those who work hard and does not discipline those who are suffering, the organization will gain a well-oiled machine that will continue to work and not break down. 

Some departments have taken steps to make sure their employees are maintaining their emotional wellness by having an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and/or a Peer Support Team on hand. Encouraging preventative techniques on how to provide self-care and take care of one another. If an employer invested in each of their officers up front then they will gain a much healthier, happier, human being and a more durable officer in the long run. Alarming as it may sound, not all police agencies offer their police officers any support. Some don’t have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), nor do they have a Peer Support Program.    

If administration refuses to provide their officers with an EAP or Peer Support program, ignores the red flags, or turns their back on providing help on any first responder who may be suffering, they might as well have pulled the trigger themselves that lead to an officer’s suicide.

There are many innovative programs agencies can adopt to help enhance the well-being of their employees.  The “Annual Check-In” Program is one that has been used throughout the nation or very similar in nature. This is something that can be done with a therapist/ clinician or an officer’s primary care physician. This will help reduce stress, anxiety and any other medical ailments that may be caused by a cumulative stress or trauma. This would be a perfect way to incorporate preventative measures in an organization without consequences.

Police and Fire Departments can do simple things such as placing Safe Call Now’s flyers and pamphlets around the department. Having them easily accessible to their employees accomplishes two things. One, it directs the employees straight to the resource at a time of need. Two, it sends a positive message from the top to the boots on the ground, that it is ok to make ‘that’ call BEFORE a first responder gets to their breaking point.

While speaking with some of my callers on the hotline about peer support within their own department and the importance of taking care of our own, I tell them about an acronym I came up with that is meant to help in a Peer to Peer situation. I call it, “BOLO” (Be On The Lookout).  A common acronym that cops know and use when they are asked to ‘be on the lookout’ for a wanted suspect. With this acronym, officers can be on the lookout for their peers and watch out for red flags. Recognize the signs and symptoms of danger.  We are in an era where we can no longer turn the other cheek or turn our backs on our peers.  When a co-worker is in pain and is displaying bizarre behavior, it is our duty to step up and step in. Sometimes we are all they got. 

 

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