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.
It had, for all purposes, been a normal shift, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott would later say.
Fish had answered calls. Made an arrest. Written a report.
“And then, for some unknown reason, he did what he did,” Lott said.
Using his service weapon, Fish killed himself inside his patrol car.
The deputy was 28. He didn’t leave a note.
“We’re all struggling to try to understand why,” 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?
And, like the department’s two other suicides — one in 2001 and another in 2007 — would it be off-limits to talk about Fish’s death publicly?
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, according to the Justice Department. Still, many departments avoid addressing the subject.
“In law enforcement, it’s almost like the biggest taboo,” Lott told The Washington 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, even in their grief, he said, they all agreed: They didn’t want to hide it, either.
And so, 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. This past Friday evening, we had one of our deputies, Derek Fish, commit suicide …”
Each year, more law enforcement officers die by suicide than from gunfire and traffic accidents combined, according to Badge of Life, a nonprofit group that tracks police suicides in the United States. The group, which has conducted periodic 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. And law enforcement suicides appear to be on the rise in 2017, according to preliminary data from the group.
But suicide-only statistics often mask a slew of other emotional health problems in a police department, and the problem is not isolated to any department size or region.
“It’s random: It’s big-city, it’s small-town, it’s three-member departments,” said Ron Clark, chairman of Badge of Life. “It’s a roll of the dice. It’s PTSD. It’s a whole series of things.
“But [suicide is] the canary in the mines. That’s not the issue. The issue in law enforcement is the emotional wellness of the officer and the ongoing education and training for the 875,000 police officers in the United States.”
However, suicide remains something that may not be discussed in police departments, Clark said.
“Law enforcement is highly macho,” he said. “For generations, we didn’t say anything.”
A 2014 report by the Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police stressed that the culture inside law enforcement agencies needed to change before suicides could be prevented.
“In a profession where strength, bravery, and resilience are revered, mental health issues and the threats of officer suicide are often ‘dirty little secrets’ — topics very few want to address or acknowledge,” Craig T. Steckler, a retired police chief and the group’s president, wrote in an introduction for the report.
“But our collective silence only compounds the problem. By ignoring the issue, we implicitly promote the unqualified expectation that police must, without question, be brave, steadfast, and resilient. Our refusal to speak openly about the issue perpetuates the stigma many officers hold about mental health issues — the stigma that depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide are signs of weakness and failure, not cries for help.”
In Richland County, though, Lott said he felt his department was ahead of the curve.
Department officials began implementing mental health programs after the 2001 suicide, and it had been a decade since the department’s last suicide in 2007. All deputies are required to attend pre-PTSD training and to learn to recognize suicidal tendencies. The department has a full-time psychologist and a full-time chaplain.
“We’re aggressive,” Lott said. “We talk about it. We have programs in place.”
“Up until Friday, I thought we’d been very successful,” he added.
To say Fish’s death stunned Lott would be an understatement.
Fish had started in the sheriff’s department in May 2011, on the lowest rung, getting assigned to places such as the courthouse and the front desk. He worked hard and achieved his dream of being a Class 1 deputy on the road, finally getting promoted in January 2013.
In January, Fish was promoted again — this time to senior deputy. His colleagues knew him for his upbeat attitude, his smile and his nickname, “Nemo” — a play on Fish’s last name and the Pixar character, and a testament to his spirit, Lott said.
“He just loved being a cop so much,” the sheriff said. “He was like a little fish just running around all over the place.”
To his colleagues, Fish seemed no different on the Friday he died — “upbeat, smiling, full of energy,” Lott said.
Fish completed his day’s work, and at least one deputy who worked with him at the regional headquarters heard Fish sign off his shift.
His body was discovered that evening by another deputy, who was supposed to give him a ride home, Lott said.
“They’re my kids. They’re no different from my kids I have at home,” the sheriff said, his voice breaking, of the 900 people in the department. “I feel like I failed on Friday because we didn’t do whatever needed to be done to save him.”
Lott thinks back to what he could have done differently. Perhaps he should have spoken more publicly about the department’s two previous suicides. They had spawned programs internally but were barely mentioned outside the force.
“You have to let the community know that these police officers are just human beings and they have the same problems and issues that everybody has. They need help just as much as everybody else does,” Lott said. “You have to admit that there’s a problem before you can address it. Suicide is a problem in law enforcement.”
A public funeral for Fish will be held today, according to the State, a local newspaper.