ABC6 Special Report: "The Weight of the Badge" | KAALTV.com

ABC6 Special Report: "The Weight of the Badge"

Laura Lee
Updated: January 26, 2021 05:08 PM
Created: January 04, 2021 10:46 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- Over the past couple of years, conversations about police reform have echoed across the country.  Now departments across the state are struggling to hire and retain officers.  Some are struggling with worse, officer suicides.

The echoing sound of sirens is the call of duty for law enforcement.  Every day on the job, they live an oath to serve and protect.  But for many who wear a badge, the current political climate in the country is making that pledge more difficult.

"At some point, we're all human beings, and it gets to a breaking point, where you just can't take it anymore," said the former officer.

Forcing officers like this one to give up the oath to protect others, instead now choosing to protect themselves.  This former officer quit his job months after the death of George Floyd.  He agreed to the interview as long as he remains anonymous to protect his family and his peace.

"I don't think there is any cop out there that goes to work every day and says, 'hey, I want to kill someone,' because they understand the seriousness of it and the effects it's going to have on you."

After more than a decade of patrolling the streets, this former cop says he knew he needed change.  His family and friends noticed he was different and irritable on the days he worked.

"When I quit, I felt a big weight lifted off my chest."

And he's not the only one feeling the weight of the badge.  According to Blue H.E.L.P, more police officers are dying by suicide than in the line of duty.  The national organization says in 2019; there were 228 suicides, eight of them were in Minnesota.

Police suicides | Source: Blue H.E.L.P. Police suicides | Source: Blue H.E.L.P.

 
"Every time they go to a situation or any call, it's a like a grain of sand, and every time you go, a grain of sand is placed on your back, well the longer that you're in this career, the more sand has been put on your back and it weighs you down," said Jay Lonien.
 
Master Patrol Officer Jay Lonien has been a police officer for 30 years. For the last 20 years, he has been with the Rochester Police Department.   He says for many officers that emotional weight is felt 24 - 7.  

"Officers are afraid of asking for help because it makes them look weak or vulnerable; we have to be the strong ones and the ones that are there to protect," said Lonien.

As a veteran cop, he has figured out how to separate work from personal life. But he says it's not easy.  That's why he steps in as a peer support team member within the city and county departments to talk about mental health.

"We need to make sure that they are not only healthy physically, but emotionally and mentally too," said Lonien.  That mental aspect means partnering with a therapist for on-site counseling.

"They talk about the blue line; there is a very fine line between how an officer can perform to the very best of their ability, but how they can also balance and acknowledge their own needs," said Patti Lynch.

Lynch says mental trauma or PTSD should be treated the same way as a physical injury in the line of duty.  She says just because they don't have a bullet hole doesn't mean they are not suffering.

"When an officer gets a gunshot wound, oh it's in the line of duty, but when an officer takes a leave of absence because of PTSD, there is a stigma," said Lynch.

The fallout from George Floyd's death in Minneapolis in May has led to one of the largest number of officers seeking disability.  More than 150 Minneapolis police officers have now filed for work-related disability, claiming PTSD from the protests and unrest days after Floyd's death at the hands of four former Minneapolis police officers.

Their attorney Ron Meuser addressed the public in July, saying some of the officers he represents were at the precinct that was burned to the ground during the riots.

"The culture within the country at this point has become more antagonistic toward law enforcement, so I think that adds an additional layer of pressure," said Lynch.

Dodge County Sheriff Scott Rose sits on the Southeast Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation.  He says he has made changes in his own department to make sure deputies can get help if they need it.  He now requires a debrief after every traumatic call offering counselors to staff.

"They are the people who are going to risk everything and risk their lives to help someone they probably have never met, and they do that every day and not only that but their families say goodbye to them every day fully knowing that they might not come back," said Rose.

Rose says law enforcement needs support from the top down, from lawmakers to administrators to the community.

"We need to change the narrative; we need to make sure our guys and gals know that it's okay to not be okay," said Rose.   He adds that support includes more access to free counseling and the respect to take time off for disability without fear of losing their jobs.

"It's an incident where our guys or gals are having a problem processing it, or dealing with it and they need to talk to somebody, that's something that we created, that this job created, so we should be taking care of them and making sure they have the help that they need," said Rose.

"Do you think an officer carries way more weight than an average person?" asks Laura Lee of Lynch.

"I think officers really carry the burden of safety of the community, there has to be super broad shoulders to carry all of that pressure and expectations because there are a lot of expectations on officers that they are always going to be there and always do their job and not make mistakes and if they do, that is going to be the headline," said Lynch.

In the past couple of years, the issue of racial injustice and police reform are making headlines.  The deaths of Michael Brown, Jamar Clark, and most recently George Floyd sparking movements and legislative change at both the state and federal levels.

"I don't think there is any cop in this country that goes out and puts their uniform on and says I am going to go out and kill a black person today; I think that is bullshit," said the former officer.

According to a 2020 U.S. News and World Report, more than 1,000 unarmed people died during altercations with police, and about a third of them were black.

People killed by police | Source: U.S. and World News Report People killed by police | Source: U.S. and World News Report

"So are you saying you don't believe there are bad officers out there who abuse their authority?" asked Lee of the former officer.

"Oh, of course, there are; unfortunately, there always going to be bad apples in every profession," he said.  "You know that you only have a split second to make a decision, and you try, and you do your damndest to make the right decision, but we are human, and sometimes you might not be right, and that is something we will have to live with as well."

Perhaps that is the biggest thing he says the public needs to know.  He says officers are human and grieve about those actions as well.

"Cops that are in those situations and have had to take a life probably grieve and deal with it for quite some time, and it probably takes a toll not only them but their families," said the former officer.

And that toll is being felt in many departments across the state.

"That's why our numbers are down for applications, that's why our retirements are up, that's why our early retirements are up, that's why our suicide rate is higher than our line of duty deaths, it's gotta change," said Rose.

"It's a lose, lose; because then you go home at the end of the day, hurt may be physically, emotionally, frustrated so where is the incentive to go back to work then," said the former officer.

"You're supposed to be this tough guy, who protects everyone, so who protects you?" asks Lee of the former officer?

"I don't know how to answer that."

He may not know the answer, but his solution to leave when he did, is proving to be the right one for him.


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