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Widows Of Police Suicide Speak Out


There is a suicide crisis in the United States. We're going to talk about it frankly, and our story may disturb some listeners. If you feel you're in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.

The national suicide rate has increased by more than 30 percent since 1999 in this blessed America. There are now more than twice as many suicides in the United States as homicides. Many involve drugs, drinking or depression, losing a job, a loved one, or stress. But experts say there is no one, two or 10 causes.

We have a story today to begin a series of reports about some of the people touched by suicide.

DAN BRANDT: Hello, there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey. How you doing?

BRANDT: Doing all right, thanks.

SIMON: A new shift begins at Chicago's North Side 14th Police District. Blue uniforms sit under bright white lights to hear the latest alerts about robberies and other crimes. But first...

BRANDT: I just wanted to say, hey, as usual. Stay safe. Thanks for doing God's work out there.

SIMON: Father Dan Brandt, police department chaplain, speaks softly.

BRANDT: If you or a co-worker need any help, don't hesitate to give a shout, all right? God bless your work.


BRANDT: Thank you. Thank you, Luke (ph).

SIMON: Seven Chicago police officers have taken their own lives in the past 12 months. Father Brandt goes out to crime scenes and station houses if officers feel the need to talk to a priest, if not a therapist. Across the country, at least 159 officers died by suicide in 2018.

BRANDT: You know, there is a nationwide statistic you may be aware of...

SIMON: Says Father Brandt...

BRANDT: ...That a police officer is twice as likely to take his or her own life as they are to be killed by an aggressor, which, if you let that sink in, that's an alarming statistic.


SIMON: We met with a group of four women from different parts of America who share a solemn sorrow. Each was married to a police officer who took his life.

Kristen Clifford's husband was Officer Steven Clifford of the Nassau County, N.Y., police. They had just gotten a puppy. They looked forward to having children. One day in May 2017, he wasn't responding to her text messages, so she drove home.

KRISTEN CLIFFORD: And I went inside, and I saw a bunch of notes, his police identification, his driver's license, everything laid out very neatly, methodically. And I ran down the hallway to our bedroom, and the door was closed. And there was a note on it that said, I did it. Do not enter. Call 911.

SIMON: Melissa Swailes was married to Officer David Swailes of the Los Angeles Police Department. They had four sons. David Swailes had symptoms of post-traumatic stress from his time in the U.S. Navy. On their youngest son's second birthday, Melissa Swailes came home and found her husband behind their bathroom door.

MELISSA SWAILES: I remember just screaming over and over, I can't, I can't, I can't.

SIMON: Erin Gibson was married to Sergeant Clinton Gibson of the Liberty Lake, Wash., police. They were high school sweethearts. They had four children.

ERIN GIBSON: It didn't even register in my mind that Clint was dead. Nothing made sense after that, so...

SIMON: Nicole Rikard had recently married Officer John Rikard of the Asheville, N.C., police. He was a recovering alcoholic, but he drank the night he took his life. She got a phone call from one of his lieutenants.

NICOLE RIKARD: And he goes, well, John is gone, and it appears to be self-inflicted. And I said, what the [expletive] are you talking about? The night before, John and I had talked about going to his concert for his favorite band, him getting another tattoo.

SIMON: The women were drawn together over the Internet because of the loss they so intimately share. They say their husbands felt more and more strain on the job. Police know they're not popular in many communities. The national conversation about race and policing has put their actions under constant scrutiny.

SWAILES: That man slowly became a different person because of the work - the day-to-day interaction of people yelling at him and calling him names and throwing things at him.

SIMON: Melissa Swailes says her husband would go from one call to the next, one crime or trauma to another, then watch video from his body cam at night.

SWAILES: Not only did you experience that all day, then you're reexperiencing it and unloading it all. And I remember thinking - looking at this man, thinking, I don't know how you can do this? And sadly, after so much time, he couldn't.

SIMON: Erin Gibson had to leave her husband because of all the pain he turned on himself.

GIBSON: He was under so much stress at work. So whenever he was home, he was drinking. And he drank. And he drank. And he drank until he passed out. And I have memories of him pacing the floors, just pacing, pacing, pacing back-and-forth. It was frightening.

CLIFFORD: He never talked to anyone, including me, about it. And that was the problem.

SIMON: Kristen Clifford and her friends say their husbands all put on masks to go to work.

CLIFFORD: He was the jokester. He was the happy one. I was just getting messages from one of his co-workers how they still talk about him and how much they miss him because he was just always making them laugh.

SWAILES: All our husbands were like - there's a certain personality I think it takes to do that job and want to be a police officer. They're very, like, service-oriented people, I think, to begin with. We've discussed privately, like, a lot of our husbands did suffer a lot of childhood trauma that, I think, led them to the profession.

GIBSON: Clint did not have a good childhood.

SWAILES: Right. They want to help families.

RIKARD: John put everyone else first.

SIMON: Police officers also have the means to end their lives at their fingertips. Each of their husbands used a gun. Two used their service weapons.

CLIFFORD: If they had to wait and figure out, you know, a way, maybe they would've changed their minds. But it's right there.

SWAILES: And as a mother of four boys, that scares me because our children are more - according to research, more likely to die by suicide. So that's always kind of in the back of my mind because, of course, we're all human. We're going to have those dark times, those dark moments. But I would rather my kids learn to reach for a phone or reach for something else instead of.

SIMON: But they say many police officers won't talk to a counselor, a therapist or priest, even when encouraged by their departments. Melissa Swailes says when she suggested it to her husband...

SWAILES: I remember he looked at me and said, are you crazy? If I go to them, not only could I lose my job, I'm going to never promote. They're going to bench me. Not to mention my colleagues, my brothers - they're going to look at me as a liability. Nobody's going to want to work with me.

SIMON: Through their loss and grief, the women have grown to feel police commanders should speak openly about their own mental struggles and encourage officers to seek regular mental counseling.

CLIFFORD: They're all struggling. I'm sorry...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's the only way to normalize it.

CLIFFORD: ...But if there's any officer who says they're not, they're lying to themselves. Like, they're all dealing with something.


CLIFFORD: So if they make it a normal thing and it's OK to talk about it, then they would all talk about it.

SWAILES: Well, just like you would go qualify, right? All of our husbands had to qualify monthly to shoot or...


SWAILES: You know, they have a - you maybe - that's just a normal thing. And it's not because you're - no, you're not fit for duty. It's just because it needs to become a normal part of their culture and their routine and their daily, weekly thing. You know, I've now received services from the police department. But I'm just like, gosh, darn it. It should've been you.

SIMON: The four friends have spoken and checked on each other every day for two years, but this was the first time they'd ever actually met. And to mark the occasion...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All right, go ahead and take a look at that and see if that's where you want it.


SIMON: When they left us, they went off to get matching tattoos.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: All right. You ready?



SIMON: Dandelions - because children make a wish when they blow dandelion seeds into the wind, as the women hope the stories of their husbands will spread understanding of the special stresses that are a peril to police officers on the streets and in their souls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.