South Carolina

What SC is doing to prevent future officer suicides

Experience With PTSD Helps Deputies Teach Others

Richland County Sheriff's Department is requiring a new class about PTSD for all deputies. The instructors are deputies who have experienced traumatic events.
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Richland County Sheriff's Department is requiring a new class about PTSD for all deputies. The instructors are deputies who have experienced traumatic events.

Last week’s suicide of a Richland County deputy is something police experts say happens all too often. But recent legislative changes may help prevent similar tragedies.

Senior Deputy Derek Fish’s funeral services are Wednesday. He shot himself with his service weapon Friday evening at the Sheriff’s Department Region 3 headquarters. Sheriff Leon Lott said he didn’t leave a note and gave no indication to anyone that he was planning to end his life.

Experts say law enforcement officers are twice as likely to die by their own hand than be killed in the line of duty.

“You look like you’re tough and strong, but the reality is, it impacts you,” Robert Douglas Jr., a retired Baltimore city officer and founder of the National Police Suicide Foundation, told The State newspaper Tuesday. “The communities need to somehow understand we’re not talking about robots here; we’re talking about human beings.”

In announcing Fish’s death Monday, Lott said his agency has made changes since the last suicide of a Richland County deputy in 2007, including the addition of a full-time psychologist and chaplain service and implementation of pre-PTSD training that includes suicide recognition.

“We still need to do more,” he said.

More training to recognize PTSD

Agencies are not required to have mental health professionals on staff, according to Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association, who said state law has very little to say on what mental health services law enforcement agencies are required to offer.

“A lot of agencies are implementing chaplaincy programs,” but they can’t require officers talk with chaplains, he said. “It’s an option available to them if they want to talk.”

Last month, the board that oversees the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy voted to mandate a psychological screening for all aspiring law enforcement officers. Such screenings are already required for accredited agencies, Bruder said, but only 59 of the state’s nearly 300 law enforcement agencies are accredited, according to the academy’s director, Jackie Swindler.

In May, Gov. Henry McMaster signed a bill into law that, among other things, allows the S.C. Law Enforcement Training Council to mandate the academy’s continued training of officers to recognize PTSD and other trauma and stress-related disorders in other officers. A course already taught at the academy educates new officers on the impact stress has on their lives.

“We put our law enforcement out on the street every day to deal with situations, and many times those situations deal with folks who are mentally ill or deal with situations that can cause mental strain or trauma,” said state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, who authored the bill. “We don’t equip them to handle those situations.”

The new law also allows the council to recommend counseling offered through the S.C. Law Enforcement Assistance Program for officers involved in an incident that causes death or serious injury.

Changing culture

Founded in 1997 initially to serve four state agencies, the Law Enforcement Assistance Program – or LEAP – now provides its services, upon request, to more than 17,000 sworn officers in all 46 counties, according to program manager Eric Skidmore.

Skidmore said the program’s peer support groups are “the tip of the spear” in their response to a traumatic event.

“When we reach out to cops, our first line of defense is other police officers who received training from us in peer support techniques,” he said. “They often become the conduit to assist officers in seeking further care.”

In a profession that has them constantly running toward danger, officers might feel like they’re expected to be stronger than others, according to Dr. Gregg Dwyer, an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science.

“You’ve got folks that are used to being the ones that are helping everybody else,” he said. “They’ve got to be the one that’s strong physically and psychologically.”

As a result, seeking help for PTSD, depression or suicidal thoughts could be viewed as a sign of weakness in law enforcement, Dwyer said. That culture appears to be changing, he added, citing the increased number of police agencies with mental health professionals on staff and the wider availability of counseling and peer support services for officers, many of which are provided by LEAP.

“South Carolina is extraordinarily progressive in this area,” he said. “That’s not done everywhere, and states have looked at South Carolina and copied that model.”

Many of LEAP’s more than 1,500 peer program volunteers are dispatchers, law enforcement spouses, mental health professionals and chaplains. But Skidmore said the core of the group is officers, and he’s encouraged after seeing more officers over the years consider becoming licensed counselors after retirement.

The Associated Press contributed.