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LAPD ACTING TO CURB SUICIDES; 14 OFFICERS KILLED SELVES IN 6 YEARS.

Byline: Patrick McGreevy Daily News Staff Writer

North Hollywood Division police officer Bryce Wicks shot and killed himself Oct. 17 in his Acton home after learning investigators wanted to question him in a hit-and-run driving case.

Four months earlier, Wicks' partner, Officer Ron Tracone, shot himself in the head after suffering personal problems.

Lisa Nielson, a Los Angeles Police Department training officer, felt harassed by fellow officers and abandoned by her superiors when she refused to fire a female rookie other officers didn't like. She killed herself in May 1995.

In the last six years, 14 LAPD officers have committed suicide, more than the 10 who have been killed in the line of duty by criminals or in situations enforcing the law, department records show.

A department report indicates that police suicides increased from seven in the five-year period ending in 1990 to 12 in the five-year period ending in 1995.

LAPD officers, meanwhile, are nearly three times more likely to kill themselves than members of the public, according to department psychologist Scott Watson.

Concerned about the stress facing officers and the number of suicides, Chief Bernard Parks is ordering a major expansion of the LAPD's Behavioral Sciences Section, the unit that provides officer counseling - increasing the staff of psychologists from nine to 15 initially, and possibly to 22 in the future.

And for the first time since the 1980s, the department will send most of those psychologists out into the field to work in the police stations and hopefully establish a rapport with officers in their own surroundings.

``Our goal is to have mentally and physically healthy employees,'' Parks said. ``We are looking to expand (Behavioral Science's) role by increasing the size of the section and deploying those resources at the field level. This is to ensure that they are available as preventive measures to address daily stress and stress reduction activities.''

Debra Glaser, who took over the Behavioral Sciences Section recently, said the new approach is an important step to better help officers cope with the high stress that comes with the job.

``What we're doing now is psychological triage,'' Glaser said. ``What we're going to do is have the psychologists assigned out to the field rather than having them sit in an office downtown waiting for officers to come in and tell them about their problems.''

Not enough help

LAPD officials and others concede the department has not done enough in the past to help officers cope with jobs that can be unbelievably stressful.

In addition to the anxiety caused by confronting criminals, officers must cope with institutional stresses, such as a strict disciplinary system that can make the officers feel second-guessed or harassed by management, said Police Protective League director Dennis Zine.

The feeling that they can be unjustifiably hit with complaints and discipline has been prevalent since the Rodney King beating, some officers say.

``The department needs to be more sensitive,'' Zine said. ``More cops kill themselves than get killed by the bad guys because they have very stressful jobs and no place to vent.''

Zine said the numbers of officers taking their own lives is ``staggering.''

``If we've got a suicide problem, we have to look at why,'' he said.

Officer Fred Nichols felt harassed and retaliated against at the LAPD after he testified as an expert witness against the city of Los Angeles in the Rodney King beating trial, his widow said.

Nichols felt he couldn't turn to the department's psychologists for fear his concerns would end up in his record, his widow said. He left the department on a stress pension but killed himself in May.

Nichols' widow, Debbie Nichols, is an LAPD officer herself.

She said she believes officers feel they must adhere to an unspoken code: Handle your own problems because asking for help is a sign of weakness.

``Being a police officer, you're supposed to be tough. They figure you ought to be able to handle the stress,'' she said.

Nichols said her husband did not trust LAPD counselors, so he had to seek help from a private therapist.

``A lot of people don't trust them because they are so involved with the department,'' Nichols said, adding that sometimes the department also thinks officers are lying about stress to get a pension.

Testified against city

Fred Nichols had sued the city for retaliation and harassment after he testified as an expert witness against the city during the Rodney King trial.

His widow said he never recovered from the way he was treated and ended his life a few years after leaving the department.

Lt. Ronald Sanchez said the department didn't do all it could for his ex-wife, Training Officer Nielson, when she began experiencing stress from the job before she killed herself in May 1995.

In addition to ending a relationship with another officer, Nielson had a conflict with some male officers when she refused to fire a female officer who the other cops felt didn't measure up.

Nielson believed she was not supported by managers when she complained of being harassed and felt she was not getting backup from officers in the field in dangerous situations, Sanchez said.

``She had a feeling that she had been abandoned by the department,'' Sanchez said. ``We have a lot of department managers that need to be more attentive to the needs of their employees.''

Meanwhile, Nielson also did not get help when she sought counseling, Sanchez said.

``She did go see a counselor. They said she was fine and not a suicide threat. It was obviously a misdiagnosis,'' Sanchez said.

The suicide of Wicks was the third and most recent by an LAPD officer this year, while only two LAPD officers have been killed while doing their job, one in a traffic accident.

Unique situation

Wicks' situation was unique; he killed himself after learning that LAPD investigators wanted to talk to him about whether he was involved in a hit-and-run accident that seriously injured a woman and her child.

The LAPD is looking into the collision and how Wicks was able to leave the

North Hollywood Police Station after investigators asked him to remain there for questioning.

Wicks also had been depressed since the suicide of his long-time partner earlier this year.

LAPD psychologist Scott Watson said his study of police suicides finds that they generally fall into four categories: those facing marital or relationship problems; those abusing alcohol to deal with stress; those facing disciplinary problems; and those facing serious health problems, including depression.

By having psychologists begin to regularly visit field divisions, the hope is that officers with problems will have better access to counselors who will be in a better position to know what is happening in the officers' lives, said Glaser, who is also the department's acting chief police psychologist.

``We can save lives,'' she said of the new approach. ``We can save officers from going off on stress pensions.''

Officials say 558 officers sought counseling with the Behavioral Sciences Section last year, up 15 percent from the year before.

Glaser said too much time is spent dealing with crises that might have been avoided.

``We want to prevent problems from happening,'' she said. ``The idea being that people will get used to seeing psychologists in the field, will become comfortable talking to them, and if something is brewing we can pick it up earlier.''

Watson believes the new approach can reduce the number of officers who kill themselves or take stress pensions.

Watson recently completed a study that looked at the 19 LAPD officer suicides from 1985 to 1995. The officers who killed themselves were between the ages of 26 and 51, and all but one used a gun to commit suicide, he said.

Key finding

The key finding of the study was that LAPD officers commit suicide at a significantly higher rate than do people in the general public.

The suicide rate for LAPD officers from 1985 to 1990 worked out to be 18.8 per 100,000 population, compared with 12 per 100,000 in the general population.

From 1990 to 1995, when more officers killed themselves, the suicide rate was 30.2 per 100,000 population.

Watson said although the LAPD suicide rate far exceeds that of the general population, it is about the same as the rate for the New York City Police Department.

Watson said the department used to have a strong field presence but budget cuts in the 1980s reduced that. There is one psychologist assigned to the Valley Bureau.

Expanding the staff of psychologists by up to 13 would allow a psychologist for every two police stations.

``The idea is, we want to have someone on site to talk to officers any time that is needed,'' he said. ``That way, they don't have to drive downtown.''

Watson is convinced the proposed new approach will help.

``My own sense of it is, if those psychologists become integrated into the (field) environment and officers get used to talking to them, that there is a greater likelihood of their ability to do good proactive work and head off crises that trigger a suicidal response,'' Watson said.

However, Sanchez said simply expanding the number of psychologists will not be sufficient to solve the problem of officers succumbing to stress.

He noted that when an officer is ordered by a supervisor to see a psychologist, whatever is said in counseling can end up in the hands of department managers, who can use it against the officer.

``What is the chance that the officer is going to be forthright?'' he asked.

Sanchez also said increasing the number of psychologists will not solve the problem if department managers are not more responsive to employees.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO LAPD Officer Debbie Nichols is the widow of an officer who took his own life in May after feelings of abandonment by the department.

Gus Ruelas/Daily News
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.
jrobinsonn
John Robinson (Member): God Bless you Fred Nichols 7/29/2010 3:12 PM
I remember you from college classes we took together at the Union Institute and I called you to give you support during the Rodney King fiasco. My brother committed suicide also. God bless you both and I hope you find peace in the next life.

 Reader Opinion

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Nov 3, 1997
Words:1650
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