Colo. first responder deaths put department above national average
The deaths of five law enforcement officers have caused leadership to re-evaluate how departments approach mental health
DENVER — Minutes before Denver police Officer Jim Sewald killed himself, he texted his sister and told her to apologize to the first responders who would find his body.
One of those first responders on that day in July 2018 was his brother-in-law and fellow Denver police Officer Brian Barry.
After learning of the text, Barry raced across Denver to his brother-in-law’s home, frantically calling. He was there when emergency personnel opened the garage door and found Sewald dead.
“I missed him by about three minutes,” Barry said. “I wasn’t quick enough.”
Sewald, a 28-year veteran of the department and longtime SWAT officer, almost never talked about the death and pain he saw on his job. He always told everyone he was OK. Only once, a few years ago, did Sewald talk to Barry about what he had seen when he responded to Columbine High School. How he watched one of the students die, despite his best efforts to save them.
“I told him I’d be free and open to talk about it any time,” Barry said. “But he never brought it up again.”
Sewald was one of seven Denver Public Safety employees to die by suicide over the past two years, according to department numbers. The seven deaths include two members of the Denver Police Department, three staff members of the Denver Sheriff Department, one Fire Department employee and one 911 dispatcher.
That number of deaths in the 4,300-person puts the department’s suicide rate at nearly seven times above the national average of 14 suicide deaths annually per 100,000 people. A single death by suicide over two years in the department would be consistent with the national rate.
“We’ve seen this rise in suicide nationally,” said Emily Lauck, who oversees the public safety department’s wellness programs as manager of performance improvement. “It’s here.”
Despite the department’s wide range of wellness programs, each death prompts a new round of questions and doubt in the department, Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said. The numbers don’t include retired public safety employees who may have died by suicide, he said.
“Did we fail to support them? Did we fail them as an organization?” he asked. “No one expected it in most of these cases.”
That was the case for Sewald. And while grappling with his brother-in-law’s death, Barry almost became the eighth department employee to take his own life.
The old man trapped inside the car slapped at the windows, pleading for help.
Barry tried to pry the door open, but couldn’t. Barry was off duty after Sewald’s funeral when he encountered the crash. He tried to help, but couldn’t get the man out until fire personnel arrived on scene.
The man was OK. Barry wasn’t.
Barry drove a few blocks, then parked his car. His head swam.
Over his 35 years as a Denver police officer, Barry responded to countless homicides, suicides, assaults and grisly crashes. This relatively minor crash shouldn’t have unnerved him. But he spiraled anyway — all the symptoms of the PTSD he had been diagnosed with in 2017 returned.
His PTSD didn’t come from one specific event, he said. It was a byproduct of three decades at a job that routinely exposed him to the worst aspects of the human conditions, moments that showed exactly how horrible one person could be to another, how terribly unfair accidents could be. It was the culmination of a career spent navigating others’ death and hate and loss.
With regular therapy, he had been getting better. He had begun to shed the angry shell the disorder created and return to who he had been before PTSD started to change him. But Sewald’s death unraveled all that work. The anger crept back in, taking root in the cracks grief had left in his foundation.
As Barry saw it that day in his car, his only options were to kill himself or get drunk. He chose the latter.
He couldn’t sleep that night, or the four nights that followed. During the day, he didn’t speak to his fellow officers based out of the Denver International Airport. When he got home, he walked straight upstairs without talking to his family. He lay alone in a dark room, doing nothing.
His mind spun at night, forcing him to relive all of the worst moments of his life, placing him back at each of the worst crime scenes. He again could feel the sun or cold from each day, the smells again flooded his senses. He often found himself back in his brother-in-law’s garage. He was angry at himself, at Sewald.
On the fifth day without sleep, Barry’s sergeant knew something was wrong. The sergeant asked repeatedly whether he was OK, and sent Barry home early from work because he knew something was wrong, despite the officer’s assurances he was fine.
While driving home down E-470, Barry called his wife and told her that he hadn’t slept, that he didn’t want to live anymore. His wife panicked.
“She kept saying that she couldn’t live without me, that things could get better,” Barry said.
Barry texted with his therapist and set up an appointment with his doctor to refill a previous prescription he had for sleep aids.
When he made it to the doctor’s office, his physician wouldn’t let him leave. It was obvious that he was spinning out of control. The doctor placed Barry on a 72-hour mental health hold, like Barry had done to so many people over his decades as a cop.
“I had just been through too much,” Barry said. “I’d seen too much,”
Barry feared for his job even as an ambulance took him to an emergency room.
Would he be found unfit for duty? Would he have to retire? Would his fellow officers see him as weak?
Nationwide, more first responders die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit Ruderman Family Foundation.
There is no official national database for first responder suicide deaths, but a sense of scale can be cobbled together through several organizations that try to keep track.
At least 215 law enforcement officers across the U.S. died by suicide so far this year, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit that tracks suicides of police, sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers. This month, at least four law enforcement officers died by suicide, according to the organization.
At least 100 firefighters died by suicide in the U.S. in the first 11 months of this year, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
No recent national numbers regarding 911 operators’ suicides are available. Athena Butler, executive director of Denver 911, said it’s not unusual for dispatchers to be left out of the conversation regarding trauma and suicide among first responders. For example, when Colorado lawmakers passed a bill in 2017 allowing first responders to access workers’ compensation for PTSD, they did not include dispatchers in the language. Butler is working with legislators to close that gap in the 2020 session, she said.
“They really are the first of first responders,” Butler said. “But they do get hidden. They do get missed because they’re behind the scenes.”
Every day, dispatchers handle hundreds of calls, switching from one crisis to another without pause. And when one of her employees died by suicide last year, Butler knew the death would add another layer of stress for her staff.
“Once you go through this, and you can have all the policy in the world, when you’re going through it you learn even more,” Butler said.
After the death, Butler brought a counselor in to the dispatch center that night to talk to staff. She’s considering making annual mental health checkups mandatory for her department. Already, the agency has implemented mandatory debriefing after critical incidents and changed work schedules to be less draining.
After the two suicides in the police department, Denver started printing the national suicide hotline on the back of every officers’ identification card, said Sgt. Bobby Waidler, who runs the department’s wellness programs. He slapped suicide prevention magnets on every officers’ locker or desk. He spoke at roll calls.
“We tried to reach officers as much as we could,” Waidler said.
Lauck, the safety department wellness coordinator, said it’s difficult to know what causes each suicide. It’s nearly impossible to determine trends, she said, because every person’s struggles are unique.
“Their job is to help people hour after hour in their most vulnerable moments,” she said. “That inevitably will take a toll.”
The safety department and its agencies offer a bevy of services to its employees. Dozens of employees are trained to offer support to their peers and help connect them to services. Employees have access to free, confidential counseling. There are yoga classes and mindfulness training, physical therapy and nutrition programs. The police department even has a therapy dog, Sammy.
But all of those resources weren’t enough to save seven people, said Riggs, the safety director.
“More can be done,” he said. “But what is that more?”
Part of Riggs’ hope lies with the new generation of firefighters, deputies, police and dispatchers that are joining the department. Younger generations are generally more open to talking about mental health, and he hopes the new recruits will shift a professional culture that for decades taught emergency personnel that to talk about their struggles was to admit weakness. Trauma was taboo.
Riggs meets with every class of recruits and talks about the importance of wellness. Waidler, too, spends three hours with every police academy class teaching about suicide, emotional resilience and mindfulness.
“Suck it up buttercup, this is your job — those are conversations of years gone by,” Waidler said.
That stigma was exactly what made Barry nervous about returning to work after weeks of rest and inpatient treatment.
Barry slept the first 36 hours of his 72-hour mental health hold. When he woke up, he immediately felt more grounded.
During his treatment, he learned that police department leadership never intended to fire him or reprimand him in any way. And when he returned to work after six weeks, he found that he was welcomed warmly.
“This department has stood behind me this entire time,” he said.
His struggle wasn’t over, of course. He continued therapy and took prescriptions. He attended a week-long retreat for Front Range law enforcement officers with PTSD.
There, for the first time, he no longer felt alone in his internal battle.
“I’m here,” he said. “I’m living proof that somebody can go through this war with their personality intact.”
Talking about his war is not easy, however. It hurts. After he spoke with The Denver Post’s reporter for this story, Barry took the rest of the day off. He knew he would need time to relax.
But he talks anyway. He needs other officers and public safety workers to know they are not the only ones haunted by their work. He hopes to save a life.
“I didn’t want my brother-in-law’s death to be in vain,” he said.