Scars of officer suicide run deep

Like briefly tugging one errant thread on a sweater, the after effects of police officer suicide often aren’t seen until many years after the event

The one aspect of being in law enforcement that isn’t frequently talked about in anyone’s academy, the one that keeps us up at night sometimes, the one that oftentimes there is no answer for “why?,” is suicide of a coworker who is many times a friend, lover, husband, wife, brother, sister, etc. Suicide in the world of cops is a third rail, one that no one is really comfortable discussing because let’s face it, it’s depressing and it sucks all the air out of a room the instant it’s mentioned.

For me, I’d rather hear that a coworker has cancer. Why? Because at least then, it’s implied that a fight for life will be mounted, friends and supporters will gather at their side allied in the fight to keep them upright and vital, and we’ll all pull together for a common goal. But suicide?

Ultimately, it’s a loner’s gambit. Suicide removes from the picture only the one who is taking their own life, and then leaves behind catastrophic damage in its wake... irreparable damage to the social fabric of everyone’s life who knew and/or cared for that person.

Like briefly tugging one errant thread on a sweater, the after effects of police officer suicide often aren’t seen until many years after the event.

My Blood Ran Cold
The reason I wrote this piece is because as I was perusing the numerous articles on the ATF’s “Fast and Furious” operation and resulting scandal, I read the following passage:

“...and the just reported suicide of ATF agent Jeff Ryan of the L.A. Field Division.”

I confirmed through my sources that it was indeed true. To say the least, it was an upsetting piece of news. Actually, it made my blood run cold.

I had worked with Jeff at the Brown Field Border Patrol Station for three years, prior to his reassignment as a Special Agent with the ATF in Los Angeles. By all accounts, he was considered by many to be a good agent, good friend, and good family man... the “big three” we typically associate with a successful career and life, even though the details vary greatly from person to person.

Early in both of our careers, another Border Patrol Agent committed suicide in the locker room at the Brown Field Station. That agent also was considered by many to be a good agent, good friend, and a good family man.

We asked the question, “Why?”

As it turned out, that agent had an illustrious career in the Border Patrol but had incurred several on-duty injuries, become reliant on pain killers, and was fighting the administration on a whole group of issues to include workman’s compensation, a pending medical retirement, and upcoming surgeries that may or may not be successful. Maybe he felt left behind by an agency that he gave a good portion of his life to. Maybe he felt betrayed. Maybe he felt no longer useful. In the end, exact reasons will never be known and shooting himself in the heart ensured that the mysteries died with him.

Ten Years of Pain
On August 31st, 2001, Deputy Jake Kuredjian of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office was shot and killed in the line of duty, while serving a Search Warrant with the Los Angeles Field Office of the ATF. In the stack approaching the door, Jeff Ryan, relatively new to the office, watched as Deputy Kuredjian was killed and his life would never be the same. Jeff’s attempts to reach out to EAP services were unsuccessful and a week and a half later, one of the most destructive and seminal events in our country’s history since Pearl Harbor, played itself out in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Even Jeff probably thought that his problems associated with Deputy Kuredjian’s murder were of little consequence, given this nation’s razor focus on reacting too and rebuilding after the terrorist attacks. But not unlike many combat veterans, police officers, firefighters, etc., PTSD may have continued to gnaw at him. In our culture of “suck it up” and “eye on the prize” Jeff probably downplayed its significance. He and I commented to each other once — sometime after the suicide at our station — that we would never go out like that... what a waste it was.

It’s more than eerie now — all these years later — to consider as a possibility that one suicide, a witnessed murder of a fellow brother in a badge, the events of September 11th, the resulting suppression of grief and PTSD from all of those things, and Jeff Ryan’s recent suicide may have all been associated. I’m not sure that it’s a definite cause, but I’m sure that all those events somehow weighed very heavily on him and in the end, he felt that he could no longer function. What other reason would merit such a final and brutal conclusion?

In the end, the mystery of why he did it died with him. I can only hope that his family will make peace and live a long and fruitful life and that brother Jeff Ryan is at peace as well.

About the author

Thane Gallagher is a senior law enforcement officer who has worked in various patrol assignments throughout his career, from this nation’s rugged back country locales, to pavement laden urban highways. In addition to his enforcement duties, he’s also a certified EMT and Field Training Officer. As an FTO, Gallagher (along with his partner) developed a more modern tactical approach and training model to teach newer personnel how to conduct highway interdiction operations. For three years, Gallagher was assigned as a Task Force Officer within a gang/narcotics unit. As a Task Force Officer and in addition to the usual investigative caseload, he was often consulted by other federal and local agencies for guidance and investigative support on a wide variety of immigration, identity theft, and document fraud issues. He’s currently assigned to highway narcotics interdiction, within a special operations group. Concurrent with this assignment, Gallagher also helps train officers from various local agencies to conduct this specialized operation, by combining the application of industry standard field tactics with the analysis of behavioral indicators in the motoring public. 

Gallagher served four years on active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard, while assigned to patrol various locales from the Bering Sea on one of the service’s largest high endurance cutters, to the Channel Islands off of Southern California on small patrol boats. Gallagher not only specialized in search and rescue operations, but he became a certified Maritime Law Enforcement Officer (Boarding Officer) early in his military career, which is where he first whet his appetite for enforcing the law. Gallagher participated in and/or led as the primary officer, hundreds of boardings throughout his Coast Guard career, making arrests for everything from boating under the influence, to narcotics smuggling on the high seas, to poaching and/or unauthorized fishing in protected waters, to felons in possession of firearms.

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