More police officers are dying by suicide in this country than in the line of duty. They are the ones who see the most traumatic of events every day, put up the yellow tape and protect us. But while they are protecting us, who is protecting them?
In 2016, 138 officers died by suicide across the country.
One of them was a long time sheriff’s deputy. Widow Heidi Harper wants to spread the word on a crisis that could impact every officer in the country, so she shared the 12 minute 911 call she made in October 2016.
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"I need a deputy to come to my house. My husband has committed suicide," she told the dispatcher.
Harper had just returned home from EMT training. It was a Thursday night, Oct. 20, 2016, and her four children were sleeping upstairs.
The 911 call is emotional, which is why she shared it. She wanted people to comprehend the anguish of walking into what she did.
"He’s sitting in the garage. I can’t touch him. I’m so sorry. I can’t go in there. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. He doesn’t have a pulse," she told the dispatcher.
The dispatcher asked his name.
"His name is Jesse," she replied softer.
Jesse Peterson was a husband and a father. His widow talked one on one with NBC Boston Investigator Karen Hensel less than a year after his death where she explains, "He ended his life in our garage while our four children slept inside the house."
He was a sheriff's deputy for 17 years. Harper says,
"At the service, there were a lot of deputies that went up to my children and would get down on their knees and tell my kids, 'I know your daddy’s gone, but you still have a dad in all of us here at the sheriff’s office,'" Harper said. "After the casket was closed, they were gone."
In one year, there was not one phone call nor one letter to her or her children.
"It’s their own uncomfortableness they know very well it could be them. By the grace of God, their doorsteps haven’t been darkened by this, this hell. They don’t know what to say," she said.
Heidi Harper is not alone. She was among five widows who shared their stories at a national conference on cop suicide in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Janice McCarthy’s husband Paul was a Massachusetts state trooper who committed suicide after years on the job.
"I’m here because I’m angry. I’m really angry. I’m angry the policies and the lack of policies that were in place when Paul died. I’m angry about the day they handed me his wallet and his badge in a ripped paper bag," McCarthy said.
Suicide is not considered a line of duty death, leaving most of the families left behind cut off immediately from pensions, death benefits, life and health insurance. Each of the five widows went down the line detailing what happened to them.
McCarthy said Massachusetts State Police "immediately cut off my health insurance."
"I lost my health insurance with four-month-old twins," April Scherzer said.
Harper lost her health insurance with four children within 10 days.
The power of one
The solution is coming in the power of one person who is efforting change.
Karen Solomon is the wife of a current Worcester police officer and the co-founder of Blue H.E.L.P.
"After hearing one story from a widow, I just decided we need to do something," she said. "Somebody said here my partner had a heart attack and that was caused by the job. Well, that’s a line of duty death right? So why isn’t the trauma to your mind?"
Her non-profit tracks officer suicides. Ninety-three have committed suicide nationwide so far this year, with eight of them in Massachusetts.
However, the Blue H.E.L.P. website is filled with picture-less profiles. No names or faces, just the date of death.
Solomon only posts the pictures or other details if the families agree. However, the stigma of suicide haunts families and the lost loved one.
"It’s the stigma, the shame they feel is attached to it. It’s the fact they’ve been shunned by their friends, family the departments because of suicide," Solomon said.
Police officers spend their careers putting up the yellow tape, shielding us from what they see, but decades of what they see, eventually can become the price they pay.
"Recently an officer reached out for help and needed some psychological help. His department fired him. There’s another officer on that department right now who is also suicidal, we’ve been getting him help and he won’t tell his department because he doesn’t want to lose his job," Solomon said.
While they are protecting us, who is protecting them?
One officer in the audience of the conference told the group he tried twice to commit suicide.
"I now imagine my wife sitting where you are," he told the panel of five widows.
There is a police officer suicide just over every two days in this country. Their names are not added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. because they are not deemed line-of-duty deaths.
Help for officers
As old-school cops and chiefs retire, so does the attitude that mental health and PTSD from years on the job are not real.
The culture is changing, and Massachusetts is taking the lead. Mass COP, the union representing 4,300 police officers in Massachusetts, has the first-in-the-nation statewide peer support program, where police officers can take a confidential, anonymous self-check quiz and then get help from a peer support officer.
Click here to take the self-check quiz.