After Derek Fish finished his patrol last Friday afternoon, the sheriff’s deputy drove his cruiser to his department’s regional headquarters in Columbia, S.C., and parked in the back. Using his service weapon, Fish, 28, killed himself inside his patrol car, the Washington Post reports. “We’re all struggling to try to understand why,” said Sheriff Leon Lott said at a news conference several days later. “And we don’t have an answer.” What the sheriff’s department did have were questions. What warning signs had it missed, Lott wondered. How could someone who had seemed so excited about a recent promotion take his own life?
Police officers are at a heightened risk for suicide because of a combination of factors, including exposure to violence, job-related stress and access to firearms, says the U..S. Justice Department. Still, many departments avoid addressing the subject. “In law enforcement, it’s almost like the biggest taboo,” Lott told the Post. “I think that’s wrong. I think that contributes to suicide rates.” Lott, who has been the Richland County sheriff for 20 years, didn’t want to stay quiet this time. He approached Fish’s parents and other family members and they all agreed: They didn’t want to hide it, either. On Monday, Lott stepped before a gathering of local reporters. Gripping the lectern and trying to fight his emotions, the sheriff began: “This is probably going to be one of the hardest press conferences I’ve ever done in the past 20 years, probably one of the most difficult.” Each year, more law enforcement officers die by suicide than from gunfire and traffic accidents combined. Badge of Life, which has conducted surveys between 2008 and 2016, found that the national rate of police suicides last year was just slightly lower than the rate of civilian suicides. Law enforcement suicides appear to be on the rise in 2017.