DesertExile: Suicide taking a toll on CHP

05 March 2007

Suicide taking a toll on CHP
Published 12:00 am PST Monday, March 5, 2007
Distraught over a relationship gone sour, California Highway Patrol Sgt. Stacey French stopped at a market along the Mendocino coast and bought a cooked chicken and a bottle of gin.
She drove to an unoccupied house about four miles away, broke a window near the back door and went in. French, who so identified with the CHP that she had its badge tattooed on her left shoulder, drank some gin and tonics.
She walked up the stairs to a bedroom, sat in a closet and shot herself in the temple.
French's death in November 2005, described in a Mendocino County coroner's report, is part of a spate of suicides among CHP officers that has left the department shaken and searching for ways to stop it.
Fifteen CHP workers have taken their lives since September 2003, a rate far higher than the average for other police agencies or the population as a whole.
"I'm taken aback," said Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation, which promotes suicide prevention and training in law enforcement agencies. "I haven't seen a cluster like that."
The CHP has found no common thread among the suicides, Commissioner Mike Brown said. Some officers were dealing with problems at home, others facing discipline at work.
"In some cases, we don't know why they chose that option," Brown said, "and this is troubling not only for us, but for their families or friends as well."
The fatalities include 13 men and two women. They occurred from the North Coast to the Inland Empire, including five in Sacramento. The most recent, last month, involved an officer, Ken Diehl, whose body was found in his Folsom home after he didn't report to duty or answer his phone.
Like 10 other CHP employees, Diehl used a gun. The grim tally also includes two overdoses, one hanging and one asphyxiation.
The department's upper management started addressing the problem last summer, and appointed a chief to talk to mental health providers and other agencies about what to do.
The CHP has distributed a video to field offices of Commissioner Brown talking about the problem. In two of its eight divisions so far, it has trained supervisors, managers and union representatives to recognize the signs that an employee may be contemplating suicide, as well as risk factors, such as marital problems or pending disciplinary action.
A clinical psychologist oversaw similar training of 123 "peer counselors" -- CHP workers who themselves have been through traumatic incidents -- so that they can take the message to CHP offices throughout the state.
"We're training all the folks, whether they wear a badge or not -- supervisors, managers and co-workers -- because we all have to be vigilant," Brown said.
Experts for years have debated the causes of police suicides, and even whether the rate is indeed higher than that of the population as a whole.
One study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry by Cornell University researchers found that the suicide rate among New York City police officers over two decades was slightly lower than for New York City residents.
But other studies have found higher rates among police. And even the Cornell researchers wrote that a rate close to the general population's could indicate a problem, because police go through rigorous psychological screening that would be expected to weed out those prone to suicide.
By any measure, the CHP's suicide rate is unusual. Over the past three years, it's been at least four times the national average. Since 2005, it's spiked to 7 1/2 times that number.
Experts cite many causes for police suicides, mostly related to the pressures of the job and the ready availability of the most common means: a gun.
"We ask our people to work very odd and unusual shifts," Brown said. "We ask them to do very odd and unusual tasks. They see things in their careers that most people in the general public will never see."
Other experts cite a culture that discourages showing vulnerability.
"We're supposed to solve problems, not have problems," said Rick Mattos, president of the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the officers' labor organization. The association has put together its own committee to address the issue.
Most suicidal officers are experiencing family or relationship problems, often brought on by the officers' inability to talk to loved ones about what they go through on the job, said Douglas, of the police suicide group.
"It usually ends up that the family is the foundation that gives way," he said.
Douglas recalls getting anguished calls from an Arizona officer whose wife and children had left him. Every time he went to sleep, the officer would dream of putting a gun into his mouth. Just before he pulled the trigger, he would wake up screaming.
"Will this ever stop?" he asked Douglas.
Similar questions plagued French, the CHP sergeant who killed herself in the Mendocino County house. In a suicide note addressed to "Babe," she wrote, "Take care of my family. I adore them, but I can't deal with this," according to the coroner's report.
Five days before, after an earlier suicide attempt, she had written a "contract" with her psychologist, promising to leave her weapons with a CHP colleague, attend two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the next week, and ask her stepmother to spend a week with her.
"I am on call 24-7," the psychologist wrote. "We will get you through this."
French was supposed to meet a colleague in Santa Rosa on the day before her death but skipped it after she found out the CHP had issued a "be on the lookout" alert for her, the coroner's report says.
Instead, she headed to the Mendocino coast, an area she knew well from her experience, prior to becoming a CHP officer, working at Russian Gulch State Park.
Next to French's body, investigators found a Styrofoam cup with the words "I am nothing" written across the lip.
Some officers commit suicide as they are facing discipline or firing -- a particularly bleak prospect for workers whose jobs are so intertwined with their identities, and who generally plan to spend an entire career at the CHP.
CHP Sgt. Brian Frank Nicholson killed himself at a Lake Tahoe overlook in 2006, three days after Folsom police searched his house while investigating a claim that Nicholson had molested a 3-year-old boy.
Sgt. Ross Chartier was on administrative leave and feared he might lose his job when he shot himself last March, according to the San Bernardino County coroner's report. His wife was gardening in the back yard of their Yucca Valley home when she heard a gunshot. She ran into the house and found Chartier's body lying on the floor next to their bed.
In other cases, the cause remains a mystery.
One morning last summer, Officer William Schlimmer was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on an athletic field in South San Francisco.
His wife told investigators that the father of two wasn't experiencing marital or financial difficulties. He had been issued a clean bill of health in a recent physical.
"The family ate dinner together last night and all seemed well," according to the San Mateo County investigation. "The subject's children went to school this morning as usual."
He left no note.
You wonder why?
These people have come to the conclusion that anywhere is better than here.
The truth is that 99% of CHP supervisors only care about the next rung on the career ladder.
Liability has made it so that a supervisor is there to protect the department, not the officer.
I had a friend, a fellow CHP officer, who committed suicide. She--yes, SHE--had some failures on relationships. Those failures put her in deep depression,. The depression led to actual illness. She missed work. Two sergeants went to her home. Later, they would say all that they asked or said was...When are you coming back to work. After they left, she sat down on her couch, took her duty weapon and shot herself though the heart.


At December 16, 2008 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former CHP officer and someone who loved Stacy dearly, all I can say is the last five lines of this article just about sum the department and why it drives so many of it's employees to thinking death is their only option.


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