Officer down

People in Gillette, Wyoming are grieving. A well-known police officer died over the weekend. Gillette is a city that is about 140 miles from Rapid City and folks are going back and forth between the two locations every day. Lots of families have members in both of our towns. Most of us in Rapid City have friends in Gillette. Most folks from Gillette have friends in Rapid City. So we’re saddened by the news as well.

Mike Fischer was an officer of the highest esteem. He served the Gillette Police Department for more than 30 years. He served in almost every area of the Gillette Police Department. Most recently he was serving as a patrol officer, but he had been a school resource officer, primarily at Thunder Basin High School. He was the department’s primary radar and lira instructor. He helped train nearly every new recruit.He always had a smile on his face.

And now he is dead.

The day before yesterday, when Campbell County Coroner Laura Sundstrrom said she can’t release the cause of death yet, rumors about his death were already flying. I was making a presentation to Law Enforcement Chaplains about Police Suicide and the Police Suicide Foundation and someone texted me a link to the official statement by the City of Gillette, which clearly stated that the coroner had not yet released the cause of death. The implication of the message was clear: here is an example of police suicide. I chose not to discuss Mike Fischer’s death in the context of that class. I didn’t have official confirmation of what had happened.

I knew, however, what had happened. And yesterday, my ideas were confirmed by an official communication with personnel within the Gillette Police Department.

Here is the sad truth: In Washington, D.C., there is a wall of heroes to honor our fallen law enforcement officers. We lose a lot of law enforcement officers each year. The official count for 2018 is 113 line of duty deaths. That does not include Officer Terrence Carraway who was killed in Florence County South Carolina the day before yesterday as he was being rushed to the hospital after falling along with six others who were met with a barrage of bullets when a gunman opened fire from a home. All of those fallen officers’ names will be added to the wall, which is right. There are fallen officers whose names appear on the wall who died as a result of the attacks of 9/11, ones who were victims of assault, ones who died in automobile crashes, those who drowned, those who had heart attacks and motorcycle accidents and those who died by gunfire. There are even a few for whom the official cause of death is listed as accidental gunfire.

But for every name on that wall, there are at least two fallen officers whose names do not appear on the wall. For every line of duty death of a law enforcement officer in the United States, two die by suicide. Those who dies by suicide placed their lives on the line for others. They endured the daily stress of a life of service. And they died violent deaths.

Here are some reasons why law enforcement officers are more apt to die by suicide than people with other professions.

  • Military training is excellent training for law enforcement and law enforcement agencies hire a lot of people with military experience. Veterans have a higher suicide rate than the general population due to the stress of the trauma they have witnessed and other causes. The United States looses an average of 22 veterans every day to suicide. The suicide rate among veterans is double that of the civilian population.
  • Traumatic stress is cumulative and officers witness a lot of trauma. It has an ever-increasing effect on their psychological well being.
  • Police officers are asked to investigate suicides. Those who are close witnesses to suicide are at increased risk of dying by suicide themselves.
  • Police officers operate in a culture of honor and silence. They often avoid seeking help because they do not want to appear to be weak. They know that psychological illness can end their careers.
  • Care givers are often not practiced at receiving care.
  • Police officers suffered the same stresses and problems as those who are not in law enforcement. They have high divorce rates, they experience financial distress, they have regrets that are the result of bad decisions.
  • Police officers are trained to make instant decisions. They are used to making life and death decisions in a fraction of a second. This makes them more vulnerable to impulsive behavior.
  • Police officers have ready access to weapons and they know how to use them.

These are just some of the reasons why our heroes die. Many officers who die of suicide have exemplary careers. And they have died as they lived, as servants of all of us who enjoy the security of living in safe communities.

Here is another thing about the community of Gillette. The entire police department is grieving. Every officer who is a part of that department is asking themselves, “Could this be me?” and “Why didn’t I see this coming?” And those officers, in the depths of their grief will continue to protect the city 24 hours a day 7 days a week, including the hour of Officer Mike Fischer’s funeral. It is what they do. It is who they are.

All survivors of suicide are familiar with the stigma that is attached to death by suicide. That stigma is especially evident when a law enforcement officer dies by suicide.

Over 100 people have commented to the message of support for Officer Fischer’s family and friends that was posted on Facebook. Campbell County Health’s comment was this: “Sending high and love to the colleagues, friends and family of Officer Fischer. You are not alone.”

I propose that one memorial to Officer Fischer is a heightened sense of caring for one another. We would honor him by asking our friends and family members, “Are You OK?” “Do you need to talk?” “Is there anything I can do to help.” We would honor him by taking extra time to reach out to one another.

I’d love to see the day when every officer who falls to suicide is honored with the same level of respect as others who have died in the line of duty. Until that day comes, let us honor them by caring for all of the men and women of law enforcement. They are treasures. We need them.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!