One Former Police Commander On Addressing The Rise In Police Suicides: 'Say The Word'Play
More police officers in the U.S. appear to be dying by suicide. According to The Washington Post, 140 law enforcement officers died by suicide last year — up from 108 in 2016 — and in Chicago, five officers have killed themselves in the past six months.
Dave Korus is a retired police commander from St. Paul, Minnesota, whose son, Jeff, is a patrolman in the city who sought help after shooting an armed man.
When Korus' son arrived at the scene, a woman was lying on the ground bleeding. She had been shot by a man who reportedly replaced his schizophrenia medication with methamphetamine. When Korus saw his son right after the incident, he knew he needed help.
"I could tell immediately when I saw him, I knew what he was going through because about 144 chemicals dump in your body," Korus tells Here & Now's Robin Young. "I had the ability to immediately listen to the actual call, and I could hear everything that he went through. I could almost see it in my mind."
Korus took his son to a police psychologist specializing in the use of eye movement desensitization, which is an approach that encourages the patient to focus on traumatic memories. Jeff said it worked.
But Korus' friend, George Connolly, who he served with in the military, wasn't so lucky. His son, Tom, a police officer in Lincoln County, Wisconsin, took his own life after witnessing a series of gruesome deaths. Korus delivered the eulogy at Tom's funeral.
There's much to learn from Tom's death and his own son's challenges, Korus says. When something traumatic happens, it's important to check in with the person before it's too late.
"It's a very quick decision, and it's very final," Korus says. "There is no going back. You can't think about it twice."
On his own experiences as a police officer and dealing with trauma
"I've never fired my weapon at somebody and caused them to die. I've been in a lot of critical incidents though. I mean, I was on a SWAT team and people shooting at us, and so a lot of times when people they ask that dirty question, 'Have you ever killed anybody?' And my answer is, 'I can think of the dozens of people that I didn't have to that I might of.'
"A gentleman on a sunny day on Snelling Avenue decided to try to take on the entire SWAT team, and I'm the one that's trying to assist him, we end up getting involved in the shooting, and I'm the one doing first aid on him. So I didn't pull the trigger. A friend of mine did that. Him and I are separated by that because he did and I didn't.
"But when it comes to my son, he walks the same streets I walked for decades, and we had always talked about this having a real high skill set, so they could defend themselves and others and to be able to be that brave person who can step into that arena that nobody else will go to when there's a vast majority of police officers that won't go there. They're afraid. They'll take their time getting somewhere. Those true warriors or those true sheep dogs that are out there are the ones that resolve these very critical incidents, and I always wanted my son to be able to be that person, but I didn't want him to be involved in a deadly encounter. It was something I always prepared him for."
"For police officers, it's very easy to take a gun that's on your hip and put it in your mouth."Dave Korus
On helping his son get help after the shooting
"The individual who kind of wrote the book on this, his book is called ['Surviving A Law Enforcement Career.'] He's a friend of mine. His name is Dr. Dennis Conroy, and that's what he does is he helps police officers take traumatic events and compartmentalize them. There is a struggle here between trying to help somebody and then actually taking their life. And that internal struggle had those physical symptoms with it. I knew that he needed to see somebody. He's my son. I love him more than anything else, and I wanted to make sure that he was OK. And my son said it worked."
On the challenges his friend's son, Tom, experienced
"My son became involved in this critical incident, but Tom had been in several of them. And George would call me and I would constantly warn him, make sure you get him help. Make sure you talk to him. Make sure you ask him deep questions. Don't just take, 'Yeah, I'm OK,' for an answer. Make him prove it.
"And what my portion of the eulogy was is that when I got off the phone with George about his son killing himself, I immediately called my son, and I demanded him to tell me that he was OK. And I asked him a question, 'Have you ever been suicidal? Have you ever thought about suicide? Have you ever thought about taking your own life?' Because for police officers, it's very easy to take a gun that's on your hip and put it in your mouth. Not like most people where they have to try to find the parts and put it all back together."
"What it gives us ... is to say the word out loud — say the word 'suicide.' "Dave Korus
On what he said in Tom's eulogy
"What I told them is that the gift that Tom gave us is to understand that these things are secondary damage to the events that he was involved in. So it's not like it's an in-the-line-of-duty death where he was shot by a bank robber. It was more like he carries this weight around, and finally, it came to a point where he couldn't handle it anymore, so he took his own life. So you have to look at that as that is the level of public service, that he was willing to give his heart that deeply to a community, that it was so brutal for him that he took his own life. And what it gives us, and it gave that police department, is to say the word out loud — say the word 'suicide.' "
On what people can learn from Tom's death and his son's story
"Well first of all, you have to make sure that you're prepared for this, so you mentally prepare yourself. Back in the old days, they actually talked about fantasizing. If this happens, what would I do? You also have to be able to either have somebody else help you manage, which I was able to help my son with. I mean, I've been trained in suicide prevention and talking to people off of bridges for years, but the big thing is say the word.
"And that's what they did at that funeral service. They said the word and what I challenged in that eulogy is that everybody here is responsible for everybody else, so turn at the person who's looking to your right and to your left and be prepared to ask the question. Because you'll hear family members or friends always say, 'I just knew something was up. I just knew something was up.' And nobody said anything because they're afraid to say the word. That's the first thing you have to do to somebody when they're standing on a bridge. Do you want to kill yourself? Do you want to commit suicide? And if they haven't made that mental transition yet, maybe you can talk them out of it."
On why many police officers don't talk about their mental health
"I have a real high-speed firefighter paramedic who's my best friend. He describes it best when he says, 'We think we're bulletproof.' OK, we don't need insurance. I'm not going to go get a physical. I'm the guy that does the rescues. Nobody rescues me. The issue that we have to constantly talk [about] in our industry is that you are the warrior. You are the sheep dog that's protecting society from the bad guys that are out there. But when it's time for you to rest to make sure that we are helping you rest.
"My really old lieutenant one time back in the old days said that there's one job in America everybody thinks they can do, and that's be a policeman. I wouldn't have done that. He should have done this. Everybody gets to judge about what they would have done. And we have to support those individuals that are out there. I say that guardedly because there are individuals that not only make mistakes but do things that are very specifically wrong, and those individuals need to be held accountable for that. However, the individuals that are out there willing to put themselves one the line, their own mental health, those individuals are heroes, and they're heroes before the day they end up getting involved a critical incident."
Ashley Bailey produced this interview, and Kathleen McKenna edited it for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.
This segment aired on January 14, 2019.