The New Power in the fight against Law Enforcement Officer Suicide
By Peter Femia
Back in late 2007, a very high profile double inmate escape occurred at my facility. The amount of press coverage it received was “staggering,” partly due to the inmate’s use of fake bodies in their bunks and holes dug through their cells, in a manner reminiscent of “The Shawshank Redemption.” A co-worker and friend, Officer Rudy Zurick, was falsely implicated by one of the escaped inmates in the note he left behind in his cell. As coverage of the escape and subsequent manhunt intensified, the contents of the note were wrongly released to the press, along with the name of my falsely accused co-worker! Soon enough, the news vans were parked in his driveway. With reporters thrusting microphones into the faces of both he and his wife, whenever they stepped out of their front door! People who were not aware of the type of man he was began to speculate and wonder about the contents of the escaped inmate’s note. They knew nothing of Officer Zurick’s character or his morality. They only knew what the newsman was telling them.
The effects of the ordeal were clearly evident in Officer Zurick’s demeanor. He became withdrawn and quiet. Sometimes he’d simply stare off for long periods of time. I tried to engage with him about it, but he wouldn’t open up. At best he’d give me a shrug. That’s the way he always carried himself. From back when he served as military police in the Air Force, and throughout his time as a corrections officer, he portrayed strength. Years spent lifting weights and prescribing to a strict body building regiment had him in peak physical condition. The perception of needing help, or of being weak, was simply not acceptable.
On January 2, 2008, Officer Rudy Zurick seemed to come out of that deep funk he had been in. He was smiling and talkative at work. Witnessing his engaging behavior, I incorrectly thought he had turned the corner–that he had the situation handled. I had no idea at the time, nor could I ever even conceive, that the reason for his newfound joy was the fact that he already knew that evening would be ending with a Glock in his mouth.
The next morning I learned that my partner, my friend was dead. It shook me to the very core of my being. Ten years later, as I write this, all the same emotions return. Within 19 months of that terrible, haunting incident, another senior corrections officer at my facility killed himself in his vehicle. He was parked right outside of Union County Jail. Two good men lost in the most senseless of manners.
The average life expectancy of an American male is 78 years old. The average life expectancy of an American corrections officer is only 59. Why? We all know that stress can cause a multiple of physical disorders and medical problems. Sustaining that direct level of stress for long periods of time causes havoc throughout the immune system. The old expression, “Pressure bursts pipes” comes to mind. For the body to continue to function properly some type of decompression becomes a necessity. Too often people turn to self-destructive measures in finding that “release valve.” The use of alcohol or prescription medication to numb the memory or to kill the pain is incredibly dangerous. The short-term success it brings is far outweighed by the damage it causes. The amount of law enforcement officers addicted to OXY & other prescription medication is at an all-time high. Too often many of these same officers progress into abnormal doses or illegal drugs. The “stigma” of the job prevents them from asking for help. They have been wired to stay strong, to grin & bear it. To not show weakness. Once the realization sets in, when they realize they have become addicts, the shame becomes unbearable. How did I go from being a cop to a junkie is, perhaps, a reoccurring thought. For many the weight of that is simply too much to bear. They see themselves as worthless. They think their families would be better off without them. In that confused state, full of hurt & pain, they choose to end their suffering. And another officer becomes a statistic.
The “Old Power” was a quiet stoic perceived strength. You spoke about nothing. You just buried any detrimental feelings or thoughts away. Now we know, there is no power to be found in a “strength” that leads to anxiety, depression, anger issues, PTSD and suicide!
There is a “New Power.” It is the power of reaching out. It is the power realized when an officer lowers his defenses, let’s down the walls the job builds around him, and asks for help. The simple act of turning to his or her partner, a friend, a loved one, a Pastor, and explaining not “what” happened, but “how that incident made him feel.” Talking about the way he reacts to the memory of it. And addressing the physical & mental response he is having to those particular stimuli. Talking seems like such a simple and somewhat naive remedy to such a huge problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. The “New Power” talk is counter culture to everything we have known. The fear of being perceived as needy or weak often silences the most well intentioned tongue.
If you see someone at your job acting strange, distant, withdrawn or unusual after a traumatic event, your engagement of the “New Power” can make the difference between life & death. Don’t assume for one second that someone else will do it. I find the best manner to do so is by talking about myself. In the course of my career I have been involved in 16 different violent incidents with inmates. Among them was the time an inmate threw chemicals into my face, leaving me with a burned cornea. In other instances I’ve suffered torn ligaments that required surgery, wounds that required stitches, and a multitude of cuts & bruises. When approaching a co-worker that appears to be going through a rough patch, I start off by telling them not only what happened, but also how it made me feel and how I got through it. That opening is often what’s needed to get them to talk. The “New Power” is expressed in the trust and confidence realized when a person understands that they are not alone–that we are all the same–just trying to get through difficult situations the best way we can.
There may be times when you simply don’t know what to say. You want to help but the words just seem to fall short. In these instances, you can encourage them to call “Cop to Cop.” The former and current law enforcement officers fielding those phone calls are well trained and prepared for the discourse that follows. It’s a phone call that can completely change the course of someone’s life.
Peter Femia is a 24-year veteran Corrections Officer at Union County Jail. He is a former PBA State Delegate for PBA Local #199. He is the present Charity Coordinator for the “Heroes4Heroes” program. He is the founding member of the Law Enforcement Cigar Club, “The Brotherhood Of Ash.”