ATLANTA - It's the number one cop killer. But the killer might surprise you: suicide. Like the rest of the nation, Georgia has seen an increase in police officers taking their own lives.
Channel 2 anchor Sophia Choi learned what's causing first responders to end their lives and how state leaders are confronting the growing crisis.
The numbers tell the story. According to Bluehelp.org, in 2018, at least 169 officers took their own lives across the nation. This year, the number is already up to 197 suicides, nearly double the 99 officers killed in the line of duty this year.
It makes big news when an officer is killed in the line of duty or injured in an accident. But you rarely hear about the biggest threat to officers: themselves.
"I believe I was left here to help," Richmond County Sheriff's Deputy Patrick Cullinan told Choi. Cullinan, a former K-9 handler, hopes by sharing his story he can help distressed officers.
"I said, 'I'm gonna see if I have the courage to put the barrel of a gun in my mouth,'" Cullinan said.
First with a gun, then by hanging, Cullinan tried to kill himself twice. Overwhelmed by years of responding to tragic scenes coupled with challenges in his home life, he was pushed nearly over the edge.
"I just kicked the chair out from under me," Cullinan said. Cullinan survived but other Georgia officers died at their own hands recently, including two Henry County police officers and one in DeKalb County.
It's likely there are more. First responder suicides typically go unreported in the media and no governmental agency tracks them.
"You take the number of officers that die in the line of duty every year, you can take that number, multiply it between two and three, and that's how many officers will take their life," Capt. Andy Carrier with the Georgia State Patrol told Choi.
Choi learned why so many officers try to kill themselves at a "Stop the Stigma" symposium at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe County.
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"Because it's traumatic, what we've seen, and, yes, it is a part of our profession, however, it just builds up on you," said Courtney Gale, a 22-year veteran with the University of Georgia Police Department.
"We're superheroes to the community. But you see there's no cape. So, we're really not," said Lt. Robbie Stevens, with the Columbia County Fire Rescue Department.
"At some point, that bucket overflows," Cullinan said.
Cullinan said the harsh reality of the job and witnessing horrific scenes that many times stay with you can ultimately overwhelm you.
"I was definitely afraid to say that I had anything going on because I was afraid I was going to lose my career. If we said these things were bothering us, that we might be ostracized. Or people would think that we were weak and we don't need to be in the profession," Cullinan said.
But the taboo surrounding suicidal thoughts is starting to fray. This year, Georgia lawmakers set aside money to establish the Office of Public Safety Support, a unit to help officers and other first responders cope.
"We didn't have a dissenting vote in the House or the Senate," Rep. Bill Hitchens told Choi. Hitchens is a former police officer and spent 28 years with the Georgia State Patrol. He says this is an issue for officers and for every citizen.
"Do you want them to have emotional problems and be upset and be mad at the world when they stop you out there for running a traffic light?" Hitchens said.
The state started the new department with $1.5 million. Five peers will be on the ready to counsel first responders who call for help during a stressful time. What makes the team special is they've all been through it. They're truly peers who know first-hand what can send a cop over the edge.
"At the end of the day, you know, peer support, it's all about normalizing reaction through shared experiences," said Carrier, who is the director of the support office.
Cullinan will be one of those peers, there to help the next generation of first responders, including his own son Chase, a state trooper.
"I hope that one day they look at my generation and say, 'Why were they so stubborn and why wouldn't they ask for help?'" Cullinan said.
The Office of Public Safety Support just got up and running in November. It's anonymous, so officers don't have to worry about anyone finding out they spoke up and got help.
It's not just for police officers. Every branch of first responders can use it, from 911 operators to firefighters.
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