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The Brotherhood--Will I Devastate My Brothers

What are you doing NOW to prevent your own suicide?


Process Problem Solving Contributor


Cop funerals are about the most painful event I have ever experienced. .

When talking about it with other officers, their sentiments are much the same. Over the years, I've pondered why cop funerals are so traumatic. There seems to be agreement that the pain is rooted in some or all of the following issues.

  • I feel duty-bound to attend. It's the last gesture of caring and concern that I can show for my fallen brother.
  • The officer, whose body is lying in the casket, in full uniform, could just as easily have been me, instead of him.
  • Depending on the circumstances of the loss, I might even wonder for a moment why I survived when he did not.
  • The sound of the pipers playing Amazing Grace chokes my throat and fills my face with unstoppable tears--no matter where I am when I hear it.
  • I stand with fellow steely-faced officers at attention. Each one of us fears that he will be the first to break down and show the emotional pain being suffered.

About six weeks ago, I participated in my first cop funeral where the dead officer took his own life--with his service weapon. He was a well-liked and respected sergeant in a municipal agency of about 100 cops.

I knew only a couple of officers in the department, which is located about 40 miles north of where I live. The funeral was scheduled for Saturday morning with visitation on Friday evening.

Upon arrival at the visitation, I saw many new faces ranging from grunt cops all the way to the chief. I returned on Saturday for the funeral.

There was a palpable difference in the air. Yes, there was that sense of loss which ran deep. But, there was more.

The faces of this crew spelled out a variety of emotional pains. There were blank stares showing confusion about what these cops were feeling inside. All showed a high level of personal anguish. Their faces held many questions, but few answers.

"How did I not see this coming? I am a trained observer. How did I fail my brother officer?"

"Why didn't the sergeant tell someone he was having problems greater than he could handle?"

"Didn't he trust me enough to be able to tell me about his thoughts before he took his own life?"

Some of the cops acted as though it was not even possible that their sergeant capped himself. "It must be a bad dream from which I will awake."

He was my brother. I would have taken a bullet for him without a moment's hesitation, but I couldn't save him from this.

And yes, there was some anger that this sergeant would knowingly inflict this kind of emotional devastation on those who loved him, respected him, and worked side-by-side with him.

Even at the visitation, there was one very young officer who cried almost constantly. I learned later that the officer had been mentored and guided by this sergeant from his very first day on the job. They were very close and the young cop deeply respected and cared for that sergeant. He was hurting and felt betrayed.

How does suicide happen?

Not literally, but mentally.

I recently talked to a young officer in my state that I sensed might be considering suicide. Bringing it up ain't easy. It's uncomfortable. But, there's times the subject must be broached.

The response of this young guy was the same as every other time it's come up: "I would NEVER take my own life. I wouldn't even seriously consider it."

Those are typical words. And they were probably uttered at some time by the sergeant whose funeral I attended. I can't imagine that a cop, out of the clear blue, with little or no stress in life, would respond any differently to questions about considering suicide.

Yet, suicide takes far more cops than do the well publicized line of duty deaths. Many departments don't report the loss as a suicide for fear of recrimination or loss of benefits.

Suicide becomes a consideration when a person is hurting, under a great deal of stress or pressure, and sees no other way to correct or bring an end to the problem.

It closes in on a person often without realization of what's happening.

Think of it like a trap set for a wild animal in the forest. A cage has food inside and there is a cone-shaped entrance that allows the animal in to get the food, but then closes so as to trap it inside. That's what happens in suicide.

It can be difficult for others to see because often the person at the center doesn't see it for themselves.

By the time the person at the eye of the storm realizes that he's been trapped, he feels helpless. He's embarrassed that this could happen to the strong, sturdy, self-reliant cop who has helped hundreds or thousands of others over his career. The last thing he is inclined to do is tell anyone out of fear of exposing his own weaknesses.

I teach cops in classrooms all across the country. They're reluctant to even ask a question in a group for fear of looking ignorant. Yet, when alone in the car on the street, the questions flow like a river.

How then can anyone be surprised that a cop would hide notions of suicide so close that no one else can perceive that they exist?

By the time suicide is a real consideration, the subject's mind is clouded. He is no longer objective. He probably can't think of anything other than getting relief from whatever is hurting him.

He doesn't even consider the pain he is about to inflict on the very brothers whom he loves and trusts most: the ones at work. He is mindlessly about to create a scar so deep and so wide that it will never heal for most of them.

Life has times of crisis

It is inevitable. You cannot escape them,

Three years ago, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. After surgery, the doctor told me it was terminal. Thank God, he was wrong.

The stress of a marital breakup is very tough. If there are kids involved, it can be mentally and financially crippling.

There may be the death of a loved one--like a parent. You have the job of handling the estate and its affairs.

Today's economy has left people in very difficult financial situations because of the drop in the value of real estate. Lots of folks find they owe more on their mortgage than the house is worth. Variable interest rates only compound the problem to the level of being a real crisis.

It might be a critical incident. A close friend of mine was involved in an officer-involved shooting where the shitbag was killed. It was a good shoot. Yet, it left my friend mentally awash for some time as he struggled with the fact that he had taken the life of another.

From big to small, you will face a crisis in your lifetime, and probably more than once.

What are you doing today to prevent your own suicide?

Suicide prevention starts first within each one of us.

It can come to anyone, without exception. Including you. You will know it has made its appearance long before anyone else. When it does, what will you do?

First, stop pretending that it can't happen to you. It can. Every cop who's capped himself said, "it can't happen to me," at one time or another. Believing otherwise is ignoring reality and is downright foolish.

What to do? Use the strategy you've been taught repeatedly--employ the WHEN/THEN approach to crisis situations and possible suicide.

Get close to some other cops. It doesn't need to be in your own agency. In fact, it might be better if they're from somewhere else.

There are three guys on my list: a street cop from Michigan; a sergeant from Omaha; a senior agent with the feds based in Florida. They comprise my team. I talk or communicate with them frequently--at least every few days. They are my pals.

I share my work-related successes with them. And, I know that they are there when I'm in trouble. Now for a short war-story.

About a year ago, I was looking to make the move from part-time to full-time cop. I looked for agencies that have their own academy, believing that in that environment I could work the street and teach. Perfect.

I began the application process with Madison, WI PD. Through the testing and application process I was at/near the top of the pool. I needed to pass the physical agility test to be held in late January to be selected.

I'm a bodybuilder, so strength was not an issue. But, I have a deformed right knee which I had to teach to run to meet the requirements of the running component of the test.

I hired a professional to teach me to run. I was in physical therapy twice each week. I went to the gym two or three times every day to run. I ran in the swimming pool. I worked my ass off in preparation for about three months straight.

On test day, I aced every event, more than doubling the requirement for each item. Then came the run. I took off like a shot. About a third of the way into the run, I tore a tendon or ligament in my left foot/ankle. I was down on my face on the track.

I was devastated. I had my heart set on Madison. The recruiter had told me that I was the "perfect" candidate. But, now I was disqualified due to the injury. I was on crutches. My spirit was broken. I had to tell all of my friends who were rooting for me that I had failed. I was probably as close to suicide as I will ever get. Fortunately, it never became a serious consideration.

As I returned to the hotel, my wife saw the crutches and immediately came to my aid. I then turned to my pals that I mentioned earlier, telling them of my fate.

They ministered to me. One had his brother at my hotel within an hour offering help and support. The others sent repeated emails of encouragement. They were on the phone checking on me and just offering an ear. The reassured me that better things would come, even though I couldn't imagine how. My brothers surrounded me (mentally, not physically) and held me up when I was most weak.

The WHEN/THEN approach requires that you consider and plan for the time that you will face such a crisis. It may come when you least expect it, but it will come.

Reaching out to others to support me in my weak areas is a sign of strength, rather than weakness. I understand: there is fear when you expose a vulnerable area of yourself. "I'll wait until something goes wrong, then I'll ask for help." It may be too late, then.

You wouldn't commence learning to shoot only if/when you come under fire on the street. That would be crazy.

Figure out who is in your life that you are comfortable talking with. Who understands your sick sense of humor? Who will listen when you need an ear? Who are you willing to support, in return?

It might be one person. It might be more, like I have. I am close to the buddies who support me. I can tell them my innermost thought and I am not threatened with worries that they will think badly of me. They are available to me whenever I need them.

I know they accept me and I am comfortable in our relationship.

Another war story: when the doctor told me that my wife had terminal cancer, one of my first thoughts was to bring my daughter home from college immediately to be with the family through the next few days of trauma. Problem was that her school was an eight hour drive away (one way).

I called one of my three pals from the hospital. He and another guy were on the road in less than an hour, delivering my daughter home the next morning. He wouldn't even let me pay for gas.

I understand. We are men. We are cops. We fix shit. We don't call someone else to do it for us.

However, when something on the street goes sideways, we call for backup, knowing in advance that it's there.

WHEN/THEN thinking

Apply the same to your personal life. Getting backup in place for the crisis times is no different than covering the shift with enough people to back you up there. It's not about being weak, but rather it's about being prepared.

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

You might make it through the next crisis on your own. But there's no awards given out on Judgment Day for going it alone. You wouldn't walk into a bank robbery in progress without backup. Don't try to walk through all of life's challenges alone. It's just plan stupid.

You are part of the biggest family on earth: The Brotherhood of cops.

If you love them, if you care about them, don't risk making them go to your funeral wondering why you didn't reach out to them, wondering about how they failed you, wondering about how they will handle the tragedy that you're putting them through.

Do it today. Do it now. Reach out. You will never be alone. Your brothers will lift you up. We are there.

I appreciate emails with comments and thoughts. Just click on my name below.

Stay safe.


Jim Donahue is a native of the Midwest, getting his education at Michigan State University. He is now part of the team with Advanced Public Safety in Deerfield Beach, Florida. He has responsibility for training cops around the country to use APS products--safely.

Jim has worked with police departments across the country on process improvement at the patrol car level, focusing on technology to improve tactics, safety, and productivity. He instructs in a variety of police academies and having taught "Technology and Tactics" to thousands of cops in-service nationally. He is an accomplished grant writer. Jim is an ILEETA member.

Jim has worked as a reserve officer, initially with U.S. Customs & Immigration at the Detroit/Canada border in the year following the attacks of 9/11. He has also worked as a patrolman on the street in a suburban Detroit community.

As a new resident of Florida, Jim plans to return to uniform on a part-time basis shortly working as a patrol officer in a local agency.

Jim is married to Paula and they have two children. Jim is a competitive bodybuilder, with six contests to his credit. Jim is active in his community and his church.