Finishing the Mission: Observations from a Suicidal Law Enforcement Officer
Contributed By: Eddie Richardson
I never realized just how fast a car could accelerate until the moment it was racing towards me, pedal mashed through the floorboard and engine roaring.
Here’s what it feels like when you’re about to die. First, your mind does not go blank as others have suggested. Instead, think, “Limp home mode”, like the setting of a car’s transmission when your car breaks down on the interstate. Experts call it “Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” Your brain maintains a few gears to operate on for survival purposes. Time slows as you focus on the threat. Your ears become less important, so the ability to distinguish sounds disappears--auditory exclusion. The same goes for fine motor skill, that’s why shooters tap the magazine of the gun with the heel of their hand in training--it’s too hard to grasp the slide of the gun when you’ve temporarily lost your fine motor skills. In point of fact, your body can only conduct large, group muscle movements. Finally, and I know it sounds weird, but you can actually reflect at times like this. For instance, I remember asking myself, “How did it come to this?” Lately, I find myself wondering if cops who take their own lives have the same cognitive experience. I know it does when I’ve thought about taking my own life.
After five years with the South Carolina Highway Patrol, I was bored. What most police officers understand, and that the public doesn’t really know, is that a lot of state police work is actually quite boring. You write a lot of tickets, work wrecks, and in general, learn the ins and outs of “police physics”: car A strikes car B creating scene C and damage D. I needed a change and so I moved over to the local Sheriff’s Department to investigate real cases. During those 7 years, I had my fair share of murders, rapes, burglaries, plus the more mundane stuff, families who can’t get along, neighbors complaining about neighbors, etc.
August 1st, 2016 was the day my body and my mind died. Called to the scene of some “repeat customers”, to deal with a car they didn’t want parked in their yard in front of their Winnebago, I was surprised to find that there actually was a vehicle in their yard –the couple was prone to detoxification hallucinations. After approaching the driver, who assured me the couple was fine with him being there, I went to the Winnebago door and realized the pair was actually sober and waiting anxiously for my arrival. That’s probably when I should have called for back-up.
The frequent flyers told me, “He’s not who you think he is and we want him gone”. My sixth sense kicked in (the hairs standing up on the back of my neck), just like it’s supposed to in this job. Unfortunately, so did my stubbornness. I turned to head back to the man in the car, taking several steps in his direction. Before I realized it; he was pointing the car at me like a missile and his foot hit the gas. I was standing in no man’s land, with no escape, nowhere to run.
For a lay person, the average perception reaction time, the time it takes for you to perceive a threat, identify it, and react to it is 1.466 seconds. Police officers have been trained to cut this time by more than 50%, to less than a half second. Still, even if I’d skipped my morning doughnut, there was no way I could outrun this vehicle.
Instead, I threw out my left arm, slapping the hood of the car as the front bumper rammed into my shins, sending me flying over the hood. As I landed on the ground next to the driver’s side door, I saw my left foot in front of my face, my right foot performing some bastardized version of a ballerina pirouette on the ground beneath me. I remember thinking, “I’m not meant to bend this way”. But, it didn’t matter. I could not leave the fight.
For some reason, I fixated on the whites of his knuckles gripping the steering wheel. He was determined to murder me and I knew I wasn’t going to survive. On auto pilot, I drew my weapon from my holster as I spun on my axis, rattling through my training checklist by rote. Unlike the military, where they’re taught that if the bush shakes, shoot the bush until it stops shaking, law enforcement has to account for every life and every bullet in an effort to preserve life and property. While this may not always seem apparent in officer-involved shootings, it is, in fact, the cornerstone of our training.
An officer must run through the checklist before employing deadly force: specifically, he must judge the ability, opportunity, and jeopardy of the situation. Specifically, does the suspect have the means to harm myself or others (ability)? Do they have the opportunity to do so? Is the weapon in their hands and can they fire it? Is there imminent peril if I don’t act (jeopardy)? Only then can an officer use deadly force. It’s also kind of weird that I went through this checklist in my head even though he had already used lethal force against me! It is because I was trained to use the least amount of force to neutralize the situation, to preserve life at any cost, that it makes me crazy when I hear politicians talk about how law enforcement needs better training around de-escalation. A guy just ran me over at least twenty miles per hour, and here I was going through my checklist and repeating the law enforcement mantra; the least amount of force needed to obtain a lawful objective.
I’ve had 4.5 pounds of pull on a five-pound trigger before a subject complied more than a thousand times over the course of an almost twelve-year career. De-escalation, on a force continuum, begins with an officer’s presence on the scene. As a subject shows one level, the officer uses the next level of force to get them to de-escalate and comply. If they don’t comply, step two calls for using verbal commands. Still not compliant? Move to empty hand control, which is joint manipulation and pressure points, etc. This is the job and I’ve always loved it. The victory for me has always been that everyone within my sphere of influence went home safe, even the criminals.
Today was going to be different. The first three rounds exited the barrel of my weapon and hit their mark. The second three coming as my left foot finally hit the ground, but he was gone out of my weapons sights. I didn’t process until later that he had fallen in over in his seat as the car barreled into a tree almost thirty yards from where he had run me over. Once again, recalling the damned checklist to preserve life, I stumbled to my feet staggering towards the tree as I attempted to save the man that had just killed my body. I realized he was dead when I got there, even though his mind had not recognized what his body already knew. The effort being futile, I still attempted to render aid until he passed. Part of me wonders if I would’ve tried to render aid if I had realized the extent of the damage he had done to my body… And to my life in general.
That raises the question of what happens when a wounded officer can no longer serve? He waits…sometimes for more than a year or two. He waits to have his benefits adjudicated. He waits for his body and mind to heal, for the comfort and support his wife and children are supposed to be able to expect. And while he waits, he falls behind on his mortgage, can’t pay his electric bills, watches his marriage and his children suffer around him.
Something else happens, too. When you’re injured, you are excommunicated. It’s subtle. Law enforcement celebrates you—you’re a hero for being wounded on the job, but they also turn their back on you, their so-called “family”. It’s not difficult to understand why. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to do the job after you’ve seen one of your own lying in a hospital bed, learning to walk again, incapable of voiding their bladder without assistance; all of which, and more, I have experienced.
I should interject, here; that I’m not writing this for other cops, but for the larger community in the hope that it will foster a greater understanding between law enforcement and lay people. You see, I am a survivor of both my own psychological death and a survivor of the internal police culture-- a culture where injuries aren’t discussed and those afflicted are shunned. For weeks after my incident, struggling and alone, I watched the “Thin Blue Line” that I had cherished, all but disappear. Turns out it was a fairy tale; a thing brothers and sisters in blue tell themselves to get through the shift, see the horrors that they see, and sacrifice their body for the communities they love. But when you’re injured, it isn’t like that anymore. You go from a tight-knit band of brothers and sisters to an isolation that is painful to the point of torture. That’s because at precisely the time you’re dealing with the pain and trauma of what happened to you ‘on the job’, you’re abandoned by the very people and system you’d come to rely upon and by whom you’ve always identified yourself.
The logical part of my brain tried in vain to fit a square peg into a round hole. Why can I handle all of the atrocities that I had witnessed with a cool head, but I can’t process my injuries and the abandonment? The emotional side began to take over, just as it does in “fight, flight, and freeze” situation, but more subtle and very slowly.
I mentioned earlier that, as law enforcement officers, we have been taught to identify, isolate and eliminate the threat with the least amount of force being used. So what happens when the officer begins to perceive themselves as the primary threat; in this case, to their loved ones? To their well-being? To their safety, even? Guilt and shame and fear begin to take hold. The threat is real and the threat is ourselves. Seeking help is out of the question. In the law- enforcement culture, an officer who seeks help can be seen as weak, a stigma which contributes to the mounting the depression.
158 is a startling number to put into print. It’s a ‘jumbo- jet- crashing- to- the- ground-leaving-no-survivors’ type of number. That’s the number of officers that turned their weapon on themselves in 2018—43 in 2019 as of the finalization of this article! It’s the dirty little secret that nobody really talks about, law enforcement included. Since we’re talking, let me share that I’ve picked up my gun more than once since that morning. I know the taste of the oil and how it permeates my mouth when my tongue touches the cold steel. And I’ve told myself that my elimination would result in less suffering for my family and friends; that emotional side of my brain masquerading as logic and convincing me that it was for the greater good.
I rationalized that my family would be financially secure through fallen officers programs and life insurances. The burden of my existence would be lifted from them as would my daily reminder of what and who I used to be. Instead, my family would have memories of a fallen hero and not the excuse of a man that I felt that I had become.
I mentioned earlier that I died that day. This is not an exaggeration. My wife will tell you, the man that walked out the door that day is not the same man that has wheeled, crutched, caned, and finally walked through the door since then. I did die.
My body is a ghost of its former glory. Atrophy has taken over my right leg and my upper body. Lifting a gallon of milk takes balance and strength beyond my means. I watch from the window as my fourteen year old daughter mows the lawn, my own chore before the injury. And whole chunks of my memory are missing due to trauma.
Without the help of my wife, my children, my closest friends, and a mental health professional, I would have finished what that perpetrator started on that day. And some might make the case that I was only fulfilling my duty if I had gone through with taking my own life, not acting upon depressive impulse, but following my training to the letter by eliminating the threat with the least amount of force as possible.
Something else happened, too, though. Hope was restored in increments. My mortgage got paid by outsiders. Christmas still came to my house, courtesy of local motorcycle clubs. The Law Riders, Blue Iron, and The Iron Medics learned of my situation. These people gave what they had to help me keep my family and my sanity safe-- a cop, abandoned by everyone except his closest family and some bikers. It’s almost surreal.
They gave me some other things, too, though, perhaps even more precious. First, they helped me understand that I need to challenge previously held biases. If you’d have told me that motorcycle clubs would come to my family’s rescue, I’d have said you were crazy. Second, they helped me realize that the quickest way to help myself was to focus on helping others.
The first phone call I got from a wounded officer came late one night. He had heard about me through some local reports of my struggles with my retirement benefits, and called out of the blue. He told me he was holding his gun in his hand and that he didn’t know where else to turn. I told him that he had my attention, and I was running to his aid. Here I was, not allowing him to finish the mission, but helping him to find a new one.
Eddie Richardson is a retired disabled police officer who resides in Lexington, SC. During his tenure he received the Medal of Valor among other citations and awards for on-duty heroics. He now advocates for wounded first responders and is the Peer Coordinator for The Wounded Blue charity and The Iron Medics MC. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org