Published May 11. 2014 4:00AM
Lauren Forbes' heart broke as she stood outside on a winter day in February 2011 and watched a funeral procession for a Charlotte, N.C., police officer who had died when a "distraction device" he was handling at home exploded.
As the daughter of police officer, she felt especially bad for the man - whose death was ruled an accident - and his family.
Forbes called her father, Groton City police Lt. Thomas Forbes, and told him what she had witnessed.
"My father told me, 'This job takes a toll on you,' and then he told me, 'You'll never have to worry about me.'"
Four short months later, she would get a dreaded phone call - her father had died by his own hand.
Forbes, 52, had reported for work on Monday, June 6, and around 8:30 a.m. shot himself with his gun.
"No one would look at my father and say that he's the face of police suicide," Forbes said.
Now, Forbes is ready to talk about her father's death in the hope that it will help prevent future police suicides. She recently spoke about police suicides at a seminar for officers about in-the-line-of-duty deaths, held at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden.
"I want the conversation about police suicide to become more open," she said in an interview. "I want to see more resources readily available to officers. There is a stigma around this. They are supposed to be big, tough, strong guys, but there are things they deal with that most people wouldn't understand. Their families make sacrifices as well. When was the last time you heard someone say to an officer, 'Thank you for your service'?"
When she first learned of her father's death, she thought it was mistake. It couldn't be her dad.
"I screamed, 'Someone killed him. This is not him. This is not him,'" Forbes said.
She said her father was an officer for 31 years and was stressed out. She said her father told her the climate at the Groton City police department was "very political," recalling there was constant conflict between management and the officers. She said her father told her he had to leave the department for the sake of his health.
A report released in January 2012 that assessed the police department addressed internal issues that the department had dealt with for the past three years, including accusations of sexual and workplace harassment, unfair discipline, favoritism and racial discrimination.
The report recommended hiring a second in command, eliminating a sergeant's position and improving communication within the department.
Forbes said that two months prior to her father's death, he responded to a call for a deceased man. Something about that incident, Forbes said, affected him.
He started having trouble sleeping. Another officer who was dealing with post-traumatic stress confided in her father that he was seeing a therapist. Forbes got the number and made some effort to make an appointment, but for some reason, it never happened.
Forbes went to his primary doctor, who prescribed some sleeping pills, his daughter said.
After he died, Forbes discovered her father's personal journal, and it was then she realized he had sought help.
"It was 31 years of that," Forbes said. "It's the nature of the work. He was stressed out, and there was tension at work. A robbery case he was working on was also stressing him out. But that call (of the deceased man) triggered something in him. It brought about issues he was dealing with or suppressing, and it finally came to the forefront."
Police officers at risk
Ron Clark, chairman of Badge of Life, a group of active and retired police officers, medical professionals and surviving families of police suicides from the United States and Canada, said the group conducted a study in 2012 and found 126 officers in the United States had committed suicide that year.
Clark said law enforcement is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. He said officers face so many traumatic events - an average of 150 to 200 critical incidents in a 20- to 25-year career - that it becomes so routine that officers fail to recognize the toll that it takes on them.
Officers respond to fatal car accidents, suicides, drownings, domestic disputes and murders and yet aren't trained or given the proper tools to assess their own mental wellness, he said.
"When an officer has PTSD, many of them end up being orphans because other officers keep them at arm's length," Clark said. "Nobody wants to deal with mental illness. We need quality peer support programs and strong leaders (chiefs) who believe that good mental health wellness requires training."
Doreen Marshall, senior director of education and prevention at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the nature of police work puts law enforcement officers more at risk to experience post-traumatic stress disorder. They witness traumatic events and have to maintain a high level of vigilance.
Officers, she said, continue to work even while they are struggling. She said the symptoms of PTSD or depression make it harder to seek help.
"Suicide is about ending pain, physical or psychological," Marshall said. "Often they believe their only choice to end that suffering is to take their own life. It's often hard for them to see that help is out there. That's why suicide prevention efforts are so important."
Forbes said one of the lessons to be learned from her father's death is that police departments should have a plan in place in the event an officer takes his or her own life.
She said there wasn't a plan in Groton City. Sgt. Keith Turgeon, who is no longer with the department, "stepped up to the plate" and assumed the role as a liaison between her family and the police department. Groton City Fire Chief Nick DeLia helped plan the funeral.
She also learned from her father's fellow officers that no help was provided to them after his death.
"My heart breaks for them," said Forbes. "It must have been hard for them, too."
Forbes said her father grew up poor and got an athletic scholarship to Eastern Connecticut State University. It was there that he met his wife of 31 years, Leslie. The couple had two daughters, Gina, the eldest, and Lauren. He loved Gina's son, Chester.
"We were the All-American family," Forbes said. "We were so close. A lot of my accomplishments feel incomplete because he's not here to share them with."
Forbes can recite her father's personal and professional accomplishments. He was a licensed pilot, rescue diver and trained hostage negotiator. He was proud of graduating near the top of his class from the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Va.
"My father would bend over backwards for people," Forbes said. "He loved to help people. He was a damn good cop, and one action is going to define him? He's never going to be honored the way he should be, and that was hard for my family."
Forbes said she spoke to her father every day. On the night before he committed suicide, she teased him about not answering his phone right away. He was at a neighbor's house.
She said that the night before the morning of his death, his computer history showed that he was searching ways to get accepted into the Connecticut bar.
"When my father died, I asked my mother if something was going to come out," Forbes said. "I think people expected that some scandal was going to break, and it didn't. I think stress was the biggest factor. The sleep medicine wasn't working, and he wasn't thinking clearly. He got to the point where he just couldn't do it anymore."
Clark, of the Badge of Life group, said if it were up to him, he would mandate that every officer meet with a therapist at least once a year to debrief.
He said it pains him to know that officers like Forbes will never have their names etched on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., because the foundation doesn't recognize suicide as an in-the-line-of-duty death.
"The trauma they faced on the job led to their death," Clark said. "What about their accomplishments? What about their awards? I'm haunted by the knowledge that an officer who committed suicide is simply thrown in the ground and forgotten, when in reality they were heroic."