Fourteen years after retiring from the Tucson Police Department, Bob Webster found himself watching a 40+ hour training session alongside familiar faces in the classroom of a West Side substation .
“It was really weird sitting in there, going through this really intense workout…it’s like I never left,” Webster said.
Like other sessions he’d attended throughout his nearly 40-year career with TPD, this one involved a lot of role-playing, scripting, and tons of background reading. But the program looked a little different: Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in Trauma Healing; On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society; Emotional survival for law enforcement.
Seven months later, a filing cabinet full of documents and handwritten notes sits on a desk in his Rancho Sahuarita home, but Webster never really leaves without it.
When he’s on the clock, he likes to be ready anytime a call might come in – with a clear head, a pen nearby, and his door opener: “Hill. It’s bob. What’s going on?”
Behind the stigma
But several studies have shown that public safety officers, especially those in law enforcement, face a significantly higher risk of suicide.
A 2017 study by the Ruderman Family Foundationa private philanthropic organization that advocates for people with disabilities, recorded at least 140 police suicides, compared to 129 police officers who died in the line of duty that year.
Researchers and advocates say the gap in suicide rates between the general public and first responders is rooted in particularly dangerous contours of the job – such as repeated exposure to traumatic events, easy access to firearms, fire – and an underlying shame and stigma associated with mental health. challenges.
“There is a huge stigma that accompanies cops asking for help because we are supposed to be the ones out there giving help…a lot of officers just don’t talk about their problems for fear of be exposed to the department or risk their reputations and careers – it kind of forces officers to keep everything inside,” Webster said.
Add the mounting pressures of the pandemic, the persistent calls for systemic change in American policing following the death of George Floyd, and the lack of resources available to first responders to deal with the stressors of their jobs to begin with, and c It’s a perfect storm for someone to feel stuck in, says Webster.
“Especially in today’s world…I think there’s this added pressure on the police that I haven’t really had to deal with, and just going through those public opinion cycles can put additional pressure on law enforcement and their families,” Webster said.
“Not every department in the country is a huge police department with psychologists or behavioral health units to deal with all the pressures their officers come in contact with…a lot of these places have nowhere to go to their agents or whoever. to, and that’s definitely some of the people I hear from.
In 1994, three police officers from the New Jersey community of Stephanie Samuels died by suicide.
When she realized no one was advising her local police department’s officers after critical incidents, including the deaths of their own colleagues, she took matters into her own hands.
Building on his previous volunteer work for a mental health helpline that connected teens with other teens who could relate to their struggles, Samuels, now a psychotherapist who works exclusively with police officers, sought to establish a helpline. confidential hotline where cops could share their difficulties. with another law enforcement officer.
“I recognized that teens trusted and confided in other teens and were more likely to discuss their issues and conflicts with each other as opposed to ‘adults’…and that cops wanted to talk to cops because that they were who they trusted on a level that few people will ever know,” Samuels explained in a blog post.
In 2004, Hill was born – a national, confidential hotline for police officers, later answered 24/7 by hundreds of retired, vetted and trained officers across the United States and Canada.
When speaking to callers, Webster says his own experience as a law enforcement officer is still one of the best tools he has for building relationships and breaking down barriers with those on the inside. other end of the line.
“Unless you’ve been there and experienced that community, that stigma, it’s hard to understand where a law enforcement officer is coming from. But 99% of the time the calls I’ve had are things that I’ve been through too – death, domestic violence, homicide, robberies – you know, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and it there are bad days,” Webster said.
And the majority (about 95%) of Copline calls are just that — bad days — Webster said. About 3% of calls are from agents involved in a critical incident, and the remaining 2% are from agents who wanted this conversation to be their last.
But no matter the call, Webster says all volunteers are trained in active listening and taught to approach every conversation with an open mind, just as he would approach a call for service if he was still in the force.
“We’re having a very intimate conversation with someone we’ve never spoken to in our lives, and we just know they’re in some sort of stressful situation…they might be calling to talk, they might be drinking, crying, suicidal, angry… all sorts of things, and just like at work, you never know what you might be walking into.
In addition to tapping into their own personal experiences, Copline volunteers also have access to a variety of vetted mental health resources and professional referrals that they can share with callers, but Webster says the subject is never forced. .
Instead, the focus is always on listening to the caller and creating a safe place where they can talk about their feelings without fear or shame.
“We have resources that we can offer them if they ask, and of course we hope they will follow through on the things we talk about, but we’re not counselors or psychologists,” Webster said.
“We’re trained to listen, to kind of function as mentors in that we learn from our experiences, but we really want them to come up with their own solutions,” he said.
While volunteering for the hotline comes naturally to Webster, he understands it’s not for everyone.
“When I hang up the phone, sometimes I just have to sit and think, you know…we’d love for everyone to tell us they’re going to be okay, but once they hang up, we don’t. ‘We really don’t know what’s going on, and we never will,’ Webster said.
“We can’t make it personal, and I think it can be difficult, but it’s also what a lot of us (police officers) have been doing all our careers… I’ve always said that my tool number one in my law enforcement career was communication because I personally was able to broadcast a lot through it, and it served me well,” he said.
Webster says he plans to continue volunteering with Copline until he feels he’s no longer effective, or just doesn’t want to do it anymore, but for now, he’s hold on to it.
“I have certainly known several officers who have committed suicide, so I think it’s really important that I do my part to get the message out that this is a confidential and free resource for law enforcement. order and their families, let them have us if they need us, if they feel stressed,” Webster said.
In retirement, working on the phone a few times a month has also given her a space to feel connected and give back to a community and a career that has given her so much.
“Being a cop…it’s like when you retire from that career, you’re walking away from it forever. One day you have access to all of this information, like the keys to the kingdom, and the next day you wake up and have the keys to nothing,” Webster said.
“But by doing that, it’s a way of tapping into all that experience and really using it, making it feel like it was worth something.”
Tucked away in his binder, Webster pulls out a birthday card from a friend – he turned 77 last week – and smiles at the cartoon cop on the cover.
“You know, I guess you’re retiring, but you’ll still be a cop.”
This story contains a discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. All calls are confidential, free and available 24/7.