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Denver public safety worker suicide rate far exceeds average

December 22, 2019 GMT

DENVER (AP) — Seven employees of Denver’s public safety agencies have taken their own lives over the past two years, a rate several times above the national average for all citizens.

The seven included two members of the Denver Police Department, three staff members of the Denver Sheriff Department, one Fire Department employee and one 911 dispatcher.

“We’ve seen this rise in suicide nationally,” said Emily Lauck, who oversees the Department of Public Safety’s wellness programs as manager of performance improvement. “It’s here.”

The department has 4,300 employees. The national average of suicide deaths is 14 annually per 100,000 people, meaning the department’s suicide rate is almost six times the national average.

The department has a wide range of wellness programs yet each death prompts a new round of questions and doubt in the department, Public Safety Officer Troy Riggs told The Denver Post.

“Did we fail to support them? Did we fail them as an organization?” he asked. “No one expected it in most of these cases.”

No recent national numbers regarding 911 operators’ suicides are available but it’s not unusual for dispatchers to be left out of conversations involving work trauma and suicide, said Athena Butler, executive director of Denver 911.

“They really are the first of first responders,” Butler said. “But they do get hidden. They do get missed because they’re behind the scenes.”

Butler is working to include dispatchers in a 2017 bill giving first responders access workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The safety department and its agencies offer many services to employees including free, confidential counseling; yoga and mindfulness training; physical therapy and nutrition programs; and even a therapy dog.

But all of those resources weren’t enough to save seven people, said Riggs, the safety director.

“More can be done,” he said. “But what is that more?”