Burden of the Badge: The alarming rate of suicide among first responders

BOSTON — There is an issue that few people are talking about, because few people want to.

It’s something that’s impacting rescuers across the state of Massachusetts. They are men and women who answer our calls for help in our times of crisis, but who is answering the call in theirs?

There are so many stories that don’t make the headlines impacting heroes who help us every single day.

It’s an incredibly painful problem and one that’s sadly getting worse.

Last year across Massachusetts, six officers took their own lives; the year before that, another five.

Nationwide, 155 police officers took their own lives last year.

Compare that to this: 129 police officers were killed in the line of duty that same year.

We are talking about the issue because so many are not. More importantly, we find out what’s being done to save those who save us.

Paul McCarthy

On any given hour of the day or night, the call comes in.

It’s a call for help with the unknown often waiting on the other end. But behind those calls is a life of seeing the worst of the worst through years of repeated work on the streets.

The impact begins to chip away at even the toughest police officers.

The organization Blue Help in Auburn, Massachusetts, lays out story after story and picture after picture of the police officers who have taken their own lives.

Paul McCarthy was a police officer who achieved what so many in law enforcement dream of.

"He loved everything about being a police officer,” his wife, Janice, said.

He rose quickly in the ranks to become a Mass. State Police Captain. But in 1993, his life began to change.

Janice says she remembers it all too well.

“He was on duty, it was a snowy night,” she said.

That night, her husband went to work and was hit while on duty. He would spend the next two years out of work.

Two years of not wearing the blue uniform he loved so deeply.

“He went from being this really vibrant, hard-working guy to all of a sudden, he couldn't walk,” Janice explained.

His family and friends tried to get him to retire and he considered it.

“But his heart was in the job so much that he said he would fight to get back to work,” said Janice.

He did return after years of learning to walk again.

So much focus was spent on his physical recovery, but not his mental recovery.

There were nightmares, sleepless nights -- a fear of doing things he used to enjoy.

“Driving in the car, he would have flashbacks of the bus coming at him,” Janice said. “That was difficult. All of these were symptoms of post traumatic stress.”

His return to work triggered it all. Despite counseling, Paul still struggled. Janice describes it as a slow spiral he couldn’t get under control.

In the late 1990s, Paul described overcoming the challenges in an interview with Boston 25’s Bob Ward.

“You just have to let it go,” he said simply.

“You just have to let it go,” Janice would repeat to us years later. “And I listen to how he says that and I know that living with him, that he was never able to let it go. It consumed him.”

On top of that, there was a second accident, in which a wrong-way driver hit Paul.

The sleepless nights; the post-traumatic stress; they only got worse.

“I could kind of sense what was going on at home and then hearing about stuff that was going on at work that he was really struggling,” Janice said.

She went to officials with the employee assistance program, saying he needed some real help.

Paul agreed to it, but as she recalls, If he had gotten help state police would've forced him to retire.

Paul wasn’t willing to do that.

One year later, in 2006, Janice was on a trip with the kids in New York. She had tried to call her husband a number of times that weekend, but he never answered.

“[When I got home] I ran up the stairs and there were two state troopers standing in my kitchen and my three children were standing there, looking at me,” Janice recalled. “And I told the state troopers to get out of my house.”

Paul had killed himself at the age of 41.

Janice believes it was the uniform that killed him.

“I know the pain he was in and I know there were roadblocks put up to keep him from getting the help he needed and that makes me angry,” Janice said.

She’s still angry and still fighting for Paul – and the many others in law enforcement who make the same choice.

The Ruderman Family Foundation in Newton has studied this issue extensively. The foundation found an elevated rate of suicide among all first-responders. It also revealed firefighters and police officers experience PTSD and depression at a rate five-times higher than average.

Boston isn't immune to it. The last time an officer with the Boston Police Department took his or her own life was in 2016.

That year, two officers committed suicide.

“I think it’s a big issue,” Boston Police Commissioner William Evans said. “We deal with tragedy almost all of the time. Very few people call us when there’s a good thing.”

Commissioner Evans recalls Easter Sunday a few years ago when a good friend of his – an officer in the department for 30 years – took his own life.

“I loved the kid. And to then have to go tell his wife personally myself, and then personally go with her to tell his three kids; I always say that was probably the worst day that I ever had on this job,” Evans said. “Now, every Easter that’s all I can think of.”

Evans says when he first got into the department the issue of suicide and mental health was “taboo.”

“Because of the macho image of being in law enforcement, you’re expected to be Superman -- a man of steel,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is to educate these officers that it's a tough job. We see some terrible things.  We see people at their worst. And that's not a normal thing to see.”

We asked state police for comment on what happened to Paul McCarthy and his widow's anger.

They didn't address Paul's history, but a spokesperson sent this statement:

“The Massachusetts State Police place great emphasis on the mental health and overall wellness of sworn members and civilian staff, and since 1992 we have maintained a full-time employee assistance unit that provides support and referrals to any MSP member seeking help for mental, emotional, or substance abuse difficulties."

Dave Betz, Junior

It happened to a young man just starting in law enforcement and the most troubling part was the lack of warning signs.

Settled among the dust and worn rustic fence in a field of childhood dreams is the place where Dave Betz first left his mark.

Wearing the number eight on the baseball diamond, he was every bit the pride and joy of his parents.

“From the earliest days that he could walk, he was running around the house with a toy gun, with the police hat -- I want to be a cop, I want to be a cop,” his father, Dave Betz Sr., said.

Life was fast at work. Dave Senior was leading the vice unit at the Chelsea Police Department. For 18 years, he led prostitution busts and drug stings.

But life was just as fast at home with his three children. Betz is as proud a father as they come.

“Everything was proceeding along with the plan and then, one day, everything changed,” Betz explained.

Dave Junior, a chiseled 24-year-old described as a gentle giant, began his own career in law enforcement.

He started at Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, then moved to a detention center and later joined the department of mental helath police in Boston.

“He would go to work every day dressed to the nines, his appearance commanded respect,” Betz said.

On one February day in 2017, everyone in the Betz family headed out of the house.

“Everything was as normal as every other day. ‘Love you dad, see you  later.’ He gave me a hug and a kiss,” Betz said.

He remembers every detail of the next morning.

“My work called me and a commander said, ‘Dave, they’re looking for your son at work,’” Betz said. “And I knew something had happened. I knew that something bad had happened to him. I was in this mode of: I have to go find my son.”

Betz started driving. As he explains, he didn’t even know where he was going. He drove Route 1 to the gym where his son worked out.

“I came back down to the parking lot and I could see his car up in the background and I said to myself, ‘man, this is not good,” Betz told us. “The closer I got to his car, I could see the windows were steamed up.”

Dave Junior was sitting in the car. It was running.

“He was in the driver’s seat and he had passed away,” Betz said.

Dave Junior had shot himself.

Now, 16 months later, the questions and the pain linger.

“There wasn’t any indication at all that this would be an issue,” Dave Betz said.

“It’s like you’re not the same person you were,” Janice Betz told us. “Everyone has changed in different ways and we’ve had to find a new way to exist.”

Dave is no longer a vice officer, he’s still with the Chelsea Police. His battle now is raising awareness about suicide within law enforcement. He organizes charity dinners and charity softball games, but he’s also in front of lawmakers hoping to spread the word.

“The badge isn’t a shield of armor to protect us from these little demons that are running around in our heads from everything we see everyday,” Dave Betz said.

His son now lies in a grave not far from the baseball field where he wore number eight so proudly.

“I go up there daily and sit with him. And the ball games are going on now. You hear the crack of the bat and I know he's listening. So he is the proverbial angel in the outfield now,” Dave Betz said.

A frank discussion

When it comes to suicide among first responders, we’re not just talking to police. This is an issue that affects firefighters, paramedics, EMTs and dispatchers.  So we sat down with a group of first responders to have a frank discussion about it.  You can watch the discussion in the player below.



Brian Fleming

There is no shortage of stories from people who thought there was only one way out.

The pressure and the constant exposure to tragedy is just too much.

Brian Fleming began his career in 1983 with Boston Police. Like most in law enforcement, he was full of pride when wearing his uniform.

Over the years, something started to change.

“There came a time that I was drinking very heavily,” Brian told us. “Somewhere along the line, I got involved in drugs that allowed me to stay up drinking. The fact that I was a cop and couldn’t stop drinking really bothered me. The fact that I was hiding this secret really built up the angst and the anxiety. I was leading two different lives.”

Brian tried to stop countless times.

“I remember coming home on a nice sunny day in the morning and realizing I was going to spend the day in bed again,” Brian said.

He said he picked up his .38 caliber handgun and put it to his temple. His finger on the trigger.  He put it down.  He picked it up again.

“Back and forth,” he said. “I kept thinking of my mother. We had recently lost my father. I don’t know what it was that day. I don’t know what it was that day, if I didn’t have the courage or thinking of my mother. Whatever it was, I put it down.”

A month later, he overdosed from the drugs and alcohol. It was enough to put him in the hospital and gave him a strange sense of relief.

“I felt a sense of peace. I knew whatever it was. It was over. The jig was up,” Brian said.

Now he's helping others. He is no longer an officer, but helping those in law enforcement who face the same struggles he once faced.

“No matter what you're trying to get through, we can help you,” he said. “You can always commit suicide down the road if you want to do that, but let us try to help you first.”

Fleming spent years leading the Boston Police stress unit. He works on his own peer support group and talks with officers who just need someone to talk to.

He says he knows how they feel and knows how to get them the help they truly need.

There is help  

As we've laid out the concerns about suicide among first responders, there's also a massive effort to change the culture one police department of the time.

Across the state and across the country, Janice McCarthy carries on her husband's legacy years after he committed suicide while working as a Mass. State Police Captain. From police departments to major conferences, she's frank with officers and first responders about the rising number of suicides.

“More officers die from their own hand than any other way,” Janice said. “And what are we doing? Not enough.”

She's also pushing state lawmakers to require all police departments to have training to deal with this issue.

The bigger agencies like Boston do it on their own. But Janice worries not enough smaller agencies do it and not consistently enough.

“How can we expect these men and women to take care of us when they're not being taken care of themselves?” she said.

Brian Kyes has been the Chief of Police in Chelsea for 11 years. The year 2016 was one of the toughest. In May of that year, Officer John Bruttaniti died in a motorcycle crash in Lynn.

Officer Robert Longo was close friends with Bruttaniti and also worked in the motorcycle unit. The morning after Bruttaniti's funeral, Officer Longo killed himself.  Police say it was unrelated.

“It was a real tough time for the department and entire community,” Kyes said.

The Chelsea Police Department now has many programs giving officers more places to turn should they need help.

Boston Police Commissioner William Evans also believes more must be done, starting with the culture.

“If you need the help, go get it,” Evans said. “You're not a weak person. You owe it to your family, you owe it to your fellow officers to make sure you go home physically fit and mentally fit.”

That is our hope.  We hope this leads to more people talking about ways to save our rescuers who may feel trapped.

If that’s you, or someone you know, we urge you to call someone who can help.

The national suicide hotline is open 24 hours a day.

It could be the phone call that saves a life of someone who desperately need sit.