Suicide prevention and immunization for officers

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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Police train all the time in use of force, special tactics and officer safety. Now, Valley police officers are going through special training to protect them from their biggest threat.

The No.1 killer of police is suicide.

Departments from all over the Valley just came together to put their officers and deputies through new life-saving on-the-job training.

Experts say there is a science as to why police are more prone to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide.

Now that same common-sense understanding is being used to try and prevent or even immunize officers to the daily exposure to trauma and stress that puts them at a greater risk for depression, suicide and PTSD.

Two years ago, former Phoenix police Officer Craig Tiger got arrested for DUI, one year to the day from when he was forced to shoot and kill an armed suspect.

"After the event, I drank every single day after work," Tiger said. "Every day, to self-medicate, trying to forget what happened to erase it, to help me sleep."  

Tiger was suicidal and diagnosed with PTSD. He asked for help but got fired because of his arrest.

Weeks after losing an appeal to keep his job, he took his own life.

Tiger's ex-wife, Rebecca, said the department turned their backs on him. Craig Tiger had some very strong final words for then-Phoenix police Chief Daniel Garcia in a letter he left behind:  

"See you on the other side! I hope you get what's coming to you Chief Garcia!

You and the city of Phoenix failed me. Plain and simple!

God speed!"

"He could have been saved. He should have been saved, and he's not the only one!" Rebecca Tiger said.  

Phoenix police Detective Sabrina Taylor is the regional crisis intervention training coordinator for Maricopa County.

"Every time we lose somebody, we want to do something different," Taylor said.

She acknowledged how quickly it becomes routine in law enforcement to put on a game face of strength, power and authority every time officers put on their uniforms so you don't show any weakness or vulnerability, even if you're feeling broken inside.

"It's built into our job, we're tough, we're strong, we can handle it," Taylor said. "It's one of those things that we just stuff deep down and pretend it isn't even there until something happens."

Trauma survivor and integrative medicine fellow Julie Rake said it doesn't take a deadly encounter for police to get PTSD.

"It's not only severe traumas such as a war fighter in a gun battle or police officer in a high-speed chase, it's the chronic everyday stressors our first responders are having every day," Rake said. "Chronic stress and trauma causes the nervous system to be amped up, hyper-reactive, all the time."

She went on a ride-along with Phoenix police and saw the nonstop high-stress demands firsthand.

"It actually changes the physical as well as chemical structures of our brain," Rake said.

Rake said MRIs have shown long-term prolonged exposure of toxic stress hormones flooding your brain shrinks the critical part of your brain that regulates emotions to make you feel calm, happy and healthy. It also makes you more prone to heart attack, stroke and suicide.

"When depression, despair and hopelessness present, oftentimes the national response is a steady diet of Prozac," Rake said.

Instead, she suggests meditation and other contemplative practices, diet, exercise and making sure you have an outlet. Something that's not often tangible for officers on the job.

"There isn't time to go to a nice little room with a waterfall and decompress and think about your feelings," Taylor said.

That’s why she and Rake worked together with Mercy Maricopa's Crisis Response Network to bring this new special training to officers.

They hope it will become second nature to officers to learn to spot and recognize the signs of chronic stressors that cause depression and lead to PTSD.

"The concept is to immunize ourselves from states of despair," Rake said.

Rake said just as your brain can be damaged by trauma, it can be healed and immunized, if you will, to everyday on-the-job trauma exposure through what you surround yourself with outside those critical work hours.

Phoenix Officer Les Fisher has been on the job for 28 years.

"You never know what's going to affect you," Fisher said.

He's one of 40 officers from 10 local agencies who recently attended Rake's seminar on "The Effects of Stress on the Brain: Understanding the Plasticity of Damage and Repair."

In addition to sharing her personal story of overcoming trauma, and the science of how trauma damages your brain, Rake talked about the concept of neuroplasticity, basically how your brain can rewire and repair itself.

"The three parts of the brain that are structurally and chemically changed secondary to stress, the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, meditation and other practices can reverse the damage," Rake said.

After her talk, officers broke into groups to share their personal stories of struggles, healing and hope.

"It really goes a long way -- having people you can talk with," Fisher said.

"My hope is that the officers we train will be a safe place for officers that are having trouble," Taylor said.

The first full day of training also featured breakouts with crisis counselors and other PTSD survivors.

The goal is to train these officers to be more aware of and in tune with the potential for healing, to be that light for others when exposure to depression and suicidal thoughts isn't a possibility but probability, simply because of their profession.

"And we may find that the person we're going to help is our partner or the person that we help is ourselves," Taylor said.

The crisis response network and 100 Club of Arizona also staffs a 24/7 hotline specifically for police, there is also one just for firefighters, staffed by former first responders who do not report back in any way to departments.

Copyright 2016 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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Nicole CritesNicole Crites anchors "Good Evening Arizona" weeknights 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. on 3TV with Brandon Lee.

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Nicole Crites

The two- time Emmy award winner has been telling stories about Valley newsmakers and trends for more than a decade. Before joining 3TV's "Good Evening Arizona" team, she was the morning news anchor at KPHO-TV in Phoenix.

Nicole loves meeting new people every day and finding ways to bring context to news unfolding in our community and our world.

A wife and mother of two little ones, Nicole is always exploring Arizona to uncover exciting adventures to share. She grew up in a big family, one of six kids in Tucson.

She graduated from the University of Arizona. Work and early internships took her from Manhattan to Spokane, WA, back to Arizona, where she and her high school sweetheart settled to start a family.

Nicole loves to read and keep busy with community service and crafts, like quilting baby blankets, something her mom taught her in elementary school.  

Nicole's passion for storytelling and helping others is why she got into journalism.

She won an Emmy for her field anchoring of the deadly Tucson shooting and assassination attempt of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and another for her KPHO "Keeping the Promise" series on military struggles and success profiles.

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