By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES — Detective Susan Clemmer became the latest Los Angeles police officer to commit suicide when she walked into a sheriff's station near her home, exchanged a few words with two deputies then shot herself in the head.
Her death Monday left colleagues distraught and struggling for answers in a department where officers are more likely to take their own lives than be killed in the line of duty.
"We pride ourselves on being good observers. People are knocking their heads against the wall thinking, did we miss something?" said police Capt. Kevin McCarthy, who heads the LAPD gang and narcotics division where Clemmer worked for a decade.
Clemmer, 41, was well-liked and had been with the LAPD for almost 20 years, most recently working at a downtown post office where she helped postal inspectors track and intercept parcels containing drugs.
She was in the media spotlight briefly when she testified at the trial of four officers accused of beating Rodney King in 1991. She had been at the scene and recalled King spitting blood on her uniform.
McCarthy said Clemmer never spoke about the trial. She had been off on sick leave for the past three weeks, and before the shooting had texted a colleague to say she would be returning to work Wednesday.
Moments before committing suicide, Clemmer placed a box on the station counter containing her police ID, keys and paperwork. One deputy saw her pull the gun and jumped over the counter to stop her, but he was too late.
There was no suicide note, said sheriff's Detective Howard Cooper, who is investigating the death. He didn't know why Clemmer chose the sheriff's station.
"It could have been a comfortable place for her to go," he said.
Kevin Jablonski, who runs the LAPD Behavioral Science Services division, declined to say if Clemmer had been receiving any kind of counseling from the unit, which has 16 people available to counsel officers, civilian employees and family members about shootings and other traumatic incidents.
Jablonski said there have been 22 officer suicides in the LAPD since 1998, a rate that slightly exceeds the rate in the general populations of California and the nation. About one LAPD officer a year dies in the line of duty, he said.
Nationally, experts differ on whether suicide is more prevalent among police officers than in the general population.
While suicide rates are slightly higher among police, younger men tend to make up the bulk of officer ranks. When that demographic is compared to an equivalent group in the general population, the rate is about the same, Washington State Patrol psychologist Daniel W. Clark said.
Officers face daily stresses that can take a toll on mental health.
"You may be exposed to the threat of violence, including situations in which people want to take your life," Jablonski said. "That can be distressing."
His fellow counselor, Denise Jablonski-Kaye, who is unrelated, said such pressures coupled with erratic hours and burdensome administrative work can lead to a breakdown in family ties, alienating officers from loved ones who may otherwise provide support.
Additionally, police officers can readily act on suicidal thoughts.
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"Being a police officer is so convenient to suicide," Jablonski-Kaye said. "They have the solution right on their hip. They can end the pain and suffering very quickly, so they reach for the solution."