Whether it's due to stress of the job or ready access to guns, cops kill themselves at a higher rate than the general population
Extramarital Affairs are Taking Their Toll at APD
Nationwide, the National Police Suicide Foundation puts officer suicides in the 400-a-year range
Copyright ABQ Free Press
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
In July 2013, then-Albuquerque Police Chief Ray Schultz sparked a storm of criticism when he publicly dismissed extramarital affairs among APD officers as “nature at play.”
“You’ve got young, good-looking folks that do this job,” Schultz said. “That’s our target group of employees – 20-, 30-, 40-year-old men and women. We ask them to stay in good shape. There’s nature at play.”
Schultz later backtracked, but the damage was done. And whether he really was dismissive of the extramarital affairs or not, one thing is clear: Cheating among cops can be deadly.
Since 2007, four people have died – two APD police officers, one APD civilian employee and the wife of a former officer – in connection with APD extramarital affairs. Two officers and the civilian employee committed suicide after being confronted about their affairs. The fourth, Tera Chavez, wife of former APD officer Levi Chavez, either killed herself or was murdered.
“Nature at play” isn’t exclusive to Albuquerque. Sex and affairs have devastated the Oakland Police Department and four other Bay Area police departments. At least 28 officers from various area departments are alleged to have had sex with a now-18-year-old prostitute who is the daughter of an Oakland PD dispatcher. Two people, an officer and his wife, have committed suicide in connection with the scandal. In June, the Oakland department went through four police chiefs in 10 days as the city’s mayor, disgusted with the scandal, fired them.
The Oakland sexcapades occurred under the eyes of a federal court judge and federal monitor overseeing the Oakland PD’s reform process since 2003.
The issue of affairs at APD resurfaced in early August when the wife of APD Sgt. Anthony Sedler called 911 to say she believed her husband had shot himself after she confronted him about an affair she charged he was having with a female APD officer.
After the confrontation, Sedler’s wife, APD Sgt. Amy Sedler, told 911 dispatchers that her husband had stormed out of their Albuquerque home while threatening to kill himself. She told dispatchers that while she was talking with her husband on her cell phone, she heard a gunshot and then gurgling sounds, which made her believe her husband had shot himself.
Sedler apparently didn’t shoot himself and apparently was trying to scare his wife. However, whether he has returned to duty, been placed on administrative leave, or is receiving counseling – all of that information is being withheld from the public. APD has refused to answer four inquiries from the ABQ Free Press about Sedler’s status.
The Sedler case, however, reopened questions about what is going on at APD in terms of extramarital affairs, and what, if anything, the department is doing to prevent them and the destruction and deaths they can cause.
Amy Sedler told police that she had gotten information that other APD employees were having affairs with the same woman she accused her husband of seeing. APD has refused to answer the newspaper’s questions about those alleged affairs. It also has refused to discuss what, if anything, it is doing to prevent officer suicides. It also refused to comment on what it is doing to ensure that officers are treated or counseled for emotional health issues that come with the job.
Whether it’s the stress of police work or ready access to weapons is not known, but police officers commit suicide at higher rates than the U.S. population at large. In fact, more cops die annually by suicide than are killed by criminals, according to two national organizations that have attempted with mixed success to track officer suicides.
Exactly how many cops kill themselves each year isn’t known because there are no uniform reporting standards and police departments often try to hide or cover up officer suicides.
Nationwide, the National Police Suicide Foundation puts officer suicides in the 400-a-year range, which would mean a rate of 53 suicides per 100,000 officers. But another advocacy group, the Badge of Life organization, says the number is much lower, with a rate of 14 to 17 suicides per 100,000. Regardless of which number you believe, the rate of police suicides is higher that the suicide rate among the general population, which is approximately 11 per 100,000 persons, according to a Badge of Life report.
“The 141 suicides we verified in 2008 were almost three times the number of officers killed by felons,” a recent Badge of Life report said. “Yet for every officer who commits suicide, there are a thousand more officers still working and suffering from extreme stress or from work-related trauma.”
According to Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation, “The number one reason why officers commit suicide is a breakdown of the family unit, and part of that is the extramarital affair.”
Douglas said that cops, who are good at giving orders on the street, are often terrible at talking to family members or anyone else about their problems.
“We have been taught how to address crisis situations at work, but [police training] academies do not teach communication skills in relation to families,” Douglas said.
Ron Clark, executive director of Badge of Life, said that while almost all police suicides are blamed on marital problems, no formal studies have been done.
“The only way you could find that out is if you could get law enforcement agencies to do forensic autopsies,” which include detailed examinations of officers’ mental states, Clark said.
Clark added that cops have not just stressful jobs but traumatic ones as well. The trauma of seeing bodies mangled in car wrecks, murdered children and of having to deal nearly every day with people at their worst takes a terrible toll.
“Most people agree that being an officer is probably the most dangerous psychological job you can do for 20 or 30 years,” Clark said. “The tip of the iceberg is the suicide. The real issue is the emotional wellness of officers.”
Both Clark and Douglas agreed that almost no U.S. police department properly addresses the police trauma and suicide issue.
“There are 18,000 police agencies in the U.S., and we think that less than 3 percent of those agencies have police suicide awareness programs,” Douglas said. “Most of our 18,000 agencies are doing nothing.”
Former APD officer Tom Grover, now a lawyer, said that affairs between cops, especially between supervisors and subordinates, have a destructive impact on police departments because they can lead to favoritism, a collapse of morale and an erosion of discipline. Officers can be promoted, or see their careers ruined, depending on with whom they are having an affair, Grover said.
“It can lead to disparate treatment, which can have a ripple effect. If there is a relationship going on laterally, or between supervisors and subordinates, someone can get deferential treatment, and in law enforcement, there is nothing more toxic than disparate treatment,” Grover said. “What do people say when they see an institution that doesn’t enforce its rules evenly?”
Grover also said that APD needs to acknowledge that its officers commit suicide, not hide from it. He said that in the years when he was an APD cop from 2004 to 2011, he heard of “six to eight [APD] officers who took their own lives” during that period.
APD has a fraternization policy that “relates to prohibited personal relationships between Department employees of different ranks and positions. Fraternization involves improper relationships, ranging from overly casual relationships to friendships to romantic relationships,” the policy says.
The policy lays out the dangers of fraternization: “When fraternization occurs between employees of different hierarchical pairing, it can potentially undermine the chain of command, order, and discipline.”
Grover said that while police departments can’t explicitly prohibit officers from having sex with each other, they can make it embarrassing and potentially costly for an officer’s career. APD personnel, he said, should be required to self-report to their superiors affairs they are having with other officers or other department personnel. That way, supervisors can decide whether to transfer people to different units or shifts to avoid controversy or conflicts of interest.
Eventually, most affairs in a police department become common knowledge. If an officer hasn’t previously reported it, he or she could be disciplined for lying, Grover said. Untruthfulness is grounds for a department to move to revoke an officer’s law enforcement license.
Former APD officer Mark Bralley (who sometimes shoots photos for this newspaper) said that cops having affairs with each other is a problem that should be addressed, but he added that it would be difficult.
“The only problem in developing a police force,” Bralley said, “is that we only have the human race to recruit from.”
The first thing police departments can do to address officers’ emotional health problems and suicides is to acknowledge that problems exist, according to a 2014 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, “Breaking the Silence on Law Enforcement Suicides.”
“In a profession where strength, bravery, and resilience are revered, mental health issues and the threats of officer suicide are often ‘dirty little secrets’ – topics very few want to address or acknowledge, the report says.
“But our collective silence only compounds the problem. By ignoring the issue, we implicitly promote the unqualified expectation that police must, without question, be brave, steadfast, and resilient. Our refusal to speak openly about the issue perpetuates the stigma many officers hold about mental health issues – the stigma that depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are signs of weakness and failure, not cries for help.”
The report notes that four things are needed immediately to address the problem: A change in culture that acknowledges mental health issues, early warning and prevention protocols, training, and effective response protocols.
APD’s Behavioral Sciences Support and Service Unit is charged with the task of crisis intervention in SWAT situations and with counseling officers who have been involved in shootings. It also provides “other services as needed, including, but not limited to, outreach to officers regarding available services; proactively offering services to supervisors and officers, such as wellness programs and de-stigmatization of psychological illness; consultation; and supervisory training regarding behavioral warning signs and behaviors.”
APD also has what it calls a Peer Support Program that is supposed to provide peer-driven emotional support for personnel “during and after personal or professional crisis; or serious illness or injury.”
We don’t know how those programs are working because APD refused to respond to this newspaper’s questions about them. The department also did not respond to a request for an interview with APD Chief Gorden Eden.
Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him with news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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