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Police work can be hard, no matter the circumstances

Published June 05. 2014 4:00AM   Updated June 05. 2014 7:10AM

When the demons of police work coerced Lt. Tom Forbes to take his own life at the City of Groton Police Department in 2011, like many who knew him, I was stunned. Law enforcement can be traumatizing, but I never thought he'd be driven to the brink. We're all experts at keeping the lid on inner turmoil.

Cops are good people who volunteer to live hazardous, risky lives (forget the money-starting with your first trauma injury or messy fatality, you're underpaid). Selflessly, they step up for the good of the community. In that regard alone, they're a rare breed to whom we're indebted.

Police work is physically and mentally dangerous. You can't clock out and leave it all behind. Like it or not, its ugliness sticks to the synapses of your brain like glue. Add intrusive department and city politics to the mix and you make a tough situation far worse.

While routine duties far outweigh emergencies and serious crime, one second at the wrong end of a gun or knife can more than make up for all the less glamorous moments. Or picking up the pieces of a fellow human. Cops see bad things and routinely deal with bad people. Bad people with no respect for anyone, including cops. Bar fights, dangerous vehicle stops, violent domestic battles, tragic accidents and shootings make for an interesting night's work that would test the strongest among us.

It didn't take long to like Tom Forbes. The man oozed integrity, values and principles. He smiled a lot when I talked to him. He was a family man through and through. And he was a good cop. Though I no longer lived there, I grew up in the City of Groton. Therefore, it was my city and every time I spoke to him, I felt good because I knew the city was a safer place thanks to cops like him.

As a fellow Connecticut Police Academy graduate, I met him years ago at a law enforcement boating course at Coast Guard Station New Haven. They needed a volunteer to be strapped into a wire basket and swung around in the prop wash hurricane under a Coast Guard helicopter hovering a thousand feet above New Haven harbor. His hand shot up first and he took the wild ride. That was Tom Forbes.

I didn't know him well but I knew him well enough. I worked for a time helping a good friend develop a sign business in Groton. Forbes would stop by occasionally to chat. We'd talk about work, crime, society, family, retirement. He'd ask a lot of questions about the sign business and small business in general. He was thinking ahead to retirement, weighing all options. He was a smart guy, inquisitive, intuitive.

Connecticut is a fairly small state, yet we've had 141 officers killed in the line of duty. Not counting suicides. Almost half die in gunfire while a little less than a quarter get hit by cars. They die in car and motorcycle accidents, they're electrocuted, drowned, stabbed and hit by trains. Three have been killed by deadly toxins. Sound like a normal workplace?

Stress overload caused 126 police officers to take their own lives nationwide in 2012 alone, according to a study by the Badge of Life, a Connecticut-based website. There were 143 police suicides in 2009. Badge of Life says police officers commit suicide at a higher rate than those in other occupations, with the exception of military personnel.

In an October 2013 story for Officer.com about police suicides on record, psychiatric nurse Pamela Kulbarsh said "Quite truthfully, the actual rate is probably higher as law enforcement suicides are more likely to be underreported or misclassified as accidental deaths. This misclassification usually occurs to protect the family, other survivors, or the agency from the stigma of suicide."

Want to know how ingrained the culture of ignorance is? According to a Chicago Tribune story earlier this year, after three of his officers committed suicide in a two-year period, Chief Daniel Greathouse of the Waukegan, Illinois Police Department emailed officers saying "These suicides were about personal choices, selfishness and weakness." He went on to say that officers were responsible for their own happiness. This is the mentality that many stressed-out officers are up against.

Forbes' daughter Lauren was recently featured in a Day article about police stress and how mental health is ignored in the law enforcement profession. She's now speaking out in memory of her father, driven by the pain in her heart and genuine concern for other police officers and their families.

Lt. Forbes worked hard to keep citizens safe. Let's hope Lauren can do the same for police officers.

THIS IS THE OPINION OF JOHN STEWARD, A RETIRED AIRPORT FIREFIGHTER WHO NOW WORKS AT ELECTRIC BOAT. HE LIVES IN WATERFORD AND CAN BE CONTACTED AT TOSSINGLINES@GMAIL.COM

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