In July, this video launched to raise international awareness about suicide and suicidal thinking in law enforcement. It features Det. Jode Sprague of the Denver Police Department talking openly about his own suicidal thinking. We spoke with him soon afterward about “coming out,” what crisis response looks like from his point of view, and more.
This interview with Det. Sprague has been edited for length:
I think one of the big things with me was, when I had my attempt, it was at that point I realized I was an alcoholic. I’m pretty involved in AA to this day. You have to have brutal honestly. You have to work that 12-step program and be totally honest with one other person.
When I went back to work, I could see that people treated me differently. Guys that kidded around with me or made jokes or whatever, they were like, “Oh, we don’t want to say something because it might upset him and try again.”
I’d been working in homicide on the night shift for four years. When I came back to work, they didn’t, obviously, put me back in homicide. They put me in the domestic violence unit. I’d been back to work a month. We’re in this huge office with little cubicles, maybe 20 to 25 other detectives. Something pissed me off, and I come up out of my cubicle. And I said, “Goddammit, I’m tired of this shit!” So they thought I was going postal. A couple came up to me: “Jode, calm down!” The sergeant comes running out of the office, they’ve all got their hands up like, “Oh, shit, what’s wrong?”
And I said, “I’m sick of this and you guys!” They said, “What did we do?” And I said, “A cop tries to kill himself one fucking time, and he’s marked?” And about five seconds, everybody started laughing, including me. I had broken that ice. People came up to me later and were like, they were treating me like they used to treat me, like I was normal, because I broached the subject. And then everybody was like “Hey, this is the old Jode we know and love.” I explained to people what was going on, what brought it all on.
What’s happened is, people can now relate to me. I’ve been called in several times for guys that are sitting home or possibly suicidal. I go meet them at the emergency room. Ninety-nine percent of them are drunk.
At that time, I’d lost my wife, my house, my truck. At that time, I thought life was over. But life goes on. The big thing is, people have to know that you walk in those shoes. Everybody goes, “Oh, that must have been tough,” but they don’t know what it’s really like unless they’ve been there. Suicide, alcoholism, whatever it is, unless someone walked in those shoes, they’re not gonna listen. And even if they have, they may not be ready to listen.
– How do you break the ice when you’re called in to do peer work?
Some of the guys I know, some I don’t. I’ll walk in and they’ll be like, “Get the fuck out of here.” I’m like, “Good to see you, too! Sucks to be you, doesn’t it? I don’t feel sorry for ya, you know. I’ve been there. Now, it’s up to you if you sink or swim. The department is giving you the chance, but you have to do the work.” Tough love.
– What have been the responses to your speaking out?
Oh, very positive. I mean, I went and spoke at an AA convention a little bit back east, in March? May? I spoke to about 600 people. A little nervously. I wasn’t there as a cop, I was there as an alcoholic. But with me, the alcoholism is the symptom, and I had a lot of PTSD, you know, stuff like that. When I finally started seeing the psychologist, at that point, I’d been in law enforcement 28 years. So you can imagine at that point, you know. Like a friend, a psychologist, said, you can’t keep putting stuff in a bucket without emptying it, or it will eventually overflow.
My dad and I had a great relationship, but I think just one time in my life I saw my dad cry. And I was raised in the ’60s. Boys don’t cry. A man handles his own problems. And so that’s the way I thought it was. And a lot of folks in my generation feel the same way still.
You see all these traumatic things, and any normal person would have to talk to someone about it. It’s the same with suicidal. Just because you’re feeling suicidal doesn’t mean you’re crazy, and I think people get that confused. We need to get rid of the stigma. It’s not the people feeling suicidal that we need to educate, it’s everybody else.
But one of the other things I’ve noticed since I made this turnaround is that, number one, if a person has one or even two people in their lives, people they can really talk to about anything … If you’re like, “I’m fine, things are plugging along,” well, that’s what most people want to hear. If you say, “I broke up with my boyfriend, my dog has cancer,” most people are like, “Oh, TMI, talk to you later!” People don’t really want to know if there’s negative stuff, unless a true friend is there for you to see you at your worst and still loves you and is really there to listen to you. If you’re available to them at three in the morning, when they’re by themselves and can’t sleep, just listen, you know. Listening is a big thing. Let them rant, let them rave.
– How can we get over our own resistance to reaching out for help?
You know, you have to be desperate enough to do it. If you’re not desperate enough, you’re not ready yet. In my case, one of my friends, he was in our department as peer support, and for months after my attempt he just blamed himself: “Jobe, I was your immediate supervisor, I’m trained to recognize all these signs, and I never saw them. I feel so bad.” I said, “I never let you see them!” And once someone makes up their mind to do it, unless you’re a psychic, you’re not gonna know. No, really! And so we can’t blame ourselves if some people fall through the cracks. You can only hope they’re right with the good lord.
The other thing is, to me, each person is in charge of their own life. And if that’s what they really want to do, I’m not saying a right to suicide and all that, but sometimes there’s just gonna be folks so committed to it, you know. You can’t imagine, over the years … I can tell you, in one year as a detective, I investigated, I think it was, 64 or 65 suicides. So I’ve seen all types you can imagine, and some really innovative ones. And I can tell you how many families I talked to who said they had no clue.
I mean, the person has to be somewhat available, and all’s you can do is kind of be a pest: “Look, I know you’re not feeling well. I don’t blame you.” And I use a lot of humor, too, because that’s the kind of person I am. Not that I’m making light of them or their pain, but I’ll turn it around and talk about one of my experiences. When I look back, it wasn’t funny at the time, but it’s funny now.
– Are you the go-to person in your department for crisis cases?
No, we have 42 of us who’ve been through training, a minimum 40-hour class. You have to be selected to do peer support. We have people from investigations, patrol, SWAT, so there’s people from all walks and different ranks. So if you’re a captain, we have a captain on peer support that another captain can talk to. I’m kind of the go-to guy when it comes to alcoholism. I get called a lot about that. I kid the folks on peer support, “We need another drunk on peer support, I’m tired of all these calls!” “But we don’t know another alcoholic!”
– What about with a crisis in the community? Plenty of people talk about their fear of police responding to a suicidal crisis.
Well, you know, as police officers, we’re pretty used to people not wanting us around. It’s all about how you approach them once you get there. There are ways around that, too. We’ve been on deals where you call and say, “My brother’s despondent, we want to make sure everybody’s safe, he has agreed to go see somebody.” In Colorado, if it’s after hours, it’s gonna have to be in an ER. So we’ll be real low-key or even stay a little hidden. As long as he has no access to any weapons, you know? Or a lot of people, if it’s your friend, then yeah, just drive them to the hospital. Or take them to a counselor.
– And when crisis lines call you?
You don’t want to send somebody in there if you don’t know what their access is to weapons, or it could be a hostage situation. You’ve gotta assess first to make sure it’s safe. One thing, crisis-wise, they need to do is make them aware of how the procedure works: “I’m concerned about you because you’re in pain, and the best thing to do is to get you to talk to somebody. But our policy is, when we do that, we’re gonna send an ambulance, no red lights or sirens, and a couple of police officers are there to make sure you don’t punch the driver in the nose, but we’re not gonna handcuff you because you’re going voluntarily. If you decide not to get checked out, that’s when we have to get police involved. We’ll just stay on the phone with you, and when they come, you just go stand on the front porch to show you’re not gonna hurt any of them, and we go from there …”
Now, I’m sure when the police get there, they might do a quick pat-down. I say it’s to make sure you don’t have any bazookas on you. I make light of it. It’s not a search, just a quick slide over the clothes. Then you sit on a bench in the ambulance and go to the hospital. We generally don’t transport in a police car because you’re not under arrest. By our department policy, they have to be handcuffed in a police car. That’s why we use an ambulance.
After I went through this, I looked back over my career, and there’s points where I could have been more understanding or more compassionate. I don’t mean I was a jerk or anything, but looking at and seeing it from the victim’s standpoint was a whole new thing. So I am more compassionate and understanding. And I had to do a lot more journaling because it affected me more. You know what I mean? I’ve seen the whole 360 degrees.
– What would you like to change about this whole experience?
You know, it’s interesting because how many people know somebody, or are related to somebody, or have a friend with experience of suicide? But you don’t know that, because it’s not a subject that’s brought up. I think all’s we can do is just try to get the word out. We are pretty blessed, I will say, about the internet, because there is information out there so people can say, “OK, this is who I can call” or read a blog like yours and see how you overcame it. Because what they’re looking for is hope.
The whole thing is, the only people truly at peace are people who are honest with themselves. I used to be so prideful that it cost me four out of five of my marriages because it was my way or the highway. Now, my relationships, if I’m wrong, I admit it. I hate to sometimes, like, “Dammit, I can’t believe she’s right!”
My personal feeling is, if everyone, say, 25 years old is required to complete a 12-step program, this would be a better place. Because you’re really having to look at yourself.
– How old are you?
This really turned me around. I hit the bottom, but because I made changes, things changed for me. I grew up working on a dairy farm, then when I got out of the Marine Corps, I worked on a cattle ranch before I became a policeman. I always wanted to be a farmer, a rancher, but one of the things I discovered about myself was, I was always afraid of failure. I was big hat, no cattle. Now, years later, I have a little farm, growing slowly, 80 acres, enough to keep me busy. I’ve got a great wife, we really connect on all levels and are very honest with each other. I’m a lot more compassionate, understanding, where I wasn’t before. And I’m not afraid to take chances and fail, because at least I tried, and I really don’t care what other people think. I mean, I do care, but I don’t let it affect me like I used to.
– Anything else?
There’s a side of us when we’re like that, that we do want others to feel our pain. I look back on that now and think how selfish that was. Friends and family that cared about me. There are effects on people’s lives. And I know suicide is a very private thing, and it’s all about that person. But you know, the person who misses out the most is the person who’s gone. Our lives still continue on. We get up every morning, breathe the fresh air, do the work we wanna do, live the life experience. And part of life is pain. Experiencing the pain without anything to numb it. We all have to experience that pain, the pain of loss or the loss of a job, house, whatever it is. But you get to experience a lot of good things, too.
I dealt with people in crisis every day, and at some point you have to believe in your mind that you’ve done all you could do. And if it happens, you’re not responsible in any way. Because it does and will bring you down: “I should have been able to save them.” I say to them, “Who the hell are you? You’re a person like the rest of us. You’re doing more than 98 percent of the general population does when it comes to suicide prevention.”
For more between posts, follow @AboutSuicide.