Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Suicide, 2-1-1 and Me

Suicide and I are old friends! I guess “friends” isn’t the right word to use, so I’ll just say we are “acquaintances” instead. And, throughout my thirty-six year career in law enforcement I unfortunately have had to renew this acquaintance all too often. I was even a homicide detective for four years and I routinely saw the raw ugliness and horror that successful suicides often leave behind them. When some desperate and pathetic soul puts the barrel of a shotgun in their mouth and pulls the trigger there is no way to adequately describe what that horrible scene looks like, nor do I want to. Let me just say it is a sight I will never forget and I can’t imagine the pain, suffering and the total feeling of helplessness a family experiences when confronted with such an obscene discovery.

Not all of the suicidal encounters I’ve been involved in have been so gruesome. And, like most police officers in America
, who want to save lives if they can, I’ve even been able to play a role in salvaging a few of these potential victims. Once, when I was a homicide detective, I tried to wrestle a loaded automatic from a young lady who was high on valium and alcohol. She wanted to end it all and she had already fired some bullets into her bedroom walls and ceiling. During the brief but desperate struggle for the gun it suddenly discharged and the bullet hit my sergeant who was also involved in the struggle. I ended up with the gun and my sergeant ended up on the floor, writhing in agony. The bullet, thank God, hit him in the leg and he would survive. So would the shooter and instead of being charged with a crime she was taken to a local mental health care facility. I’ve always been proud of the fact that my sergeant and I were named police officers of the month because of this incident, but I was also very sorry he had to be wounded in the process.

Later in my career, when I was assigned back to the Patrol Division in uniform, I had other close encounters with suicidal individuals. Once, without even thinking about what I was doing, I rushed into the path of a charging tractor trailer truck that was headed westbound on busy State Road #84, in southwest Ft. Lauderdale. A young lady wanted to end her life and she decided that stepping in front of a truck would be a quick and a sure way to accomplish this. She was almost right. After I grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the front of the speeding truck, and then somehow managed to elude this huge metal monster myself, by only a few inches, I started to shake uncontrollably as I suddenly realized just how close to death I had actually come - again!

Another time, I kneeled down a few feet away from a teenager who was sitting on the floor with his back against a wall, and who threatened to kill himself with the large kitchen knife he was holding to his own throat. Unlike the two girls that I've previously mentioned, who were both white, this lad was black. The ugly demon called suicide doesn't give a damn about race, age, gender, sexual orientation or social status. As his worried family quietly stood nearby, hoping that we could convince him to put the knife down, I tried my best to reason with him. To be honest, even though I know the topic of suicide did get mentioned during my initial training at the police academy, I really wasn't totally prepared to handle such a unique and stressful situation. I did my best, and like the family, I hoped things would work out for the best. Eventually, when it seemed that we weren't making any real progress, I lunged at the youth and took the knife away from him. In hindsight, I don't think that he really wanted to die and he was probably relieved, like I was, when the incident was finally over. Again, he was taken to a mental health care facility for evaluation and treatment.

everal years after I retired from law enforcement I decided to do some volunteer work in my own community. I saw an article in my local Tallahassee newspaper about an organization called 2-1-1 Big Bend. I’m sure almost everyone knows that when you dial 9-1-1 you get emergency help, fast! And, 4-1-1, of course, is directory assistance. Heck, Florida even has a 5-1-1 which is a statewide Travel Information System. But, I wondered, what exactly was 2-1-1? My last ten years in law enforcement was as a captain with Florida’s Department of Insurance (Division of Insurance Fraud), so I was no longer involved as a “first responder” and I really hadn’t heard that much about 2-1-1. As of June 2007, approximately 65% of the U.S. population (198 million Americans) were being served by 2-1-1, so I imagine many other people just like me are not that familiar with 2-1-1. It seems to be one of America’s best kept secrets, but hopefully this will change soon. By the end of 2008 it is estimated (hoped) that 80% of the U.S. population will have access to 2-1-1.

I'm almost positive that all of the different 2-1-1 organizations across America operate pretty much the same way. But, I'll still just discuss my own 2-1-1 Big Bend because that is the 2-1-1 I know the most about. Among other things, 2-1-1 Big Bend is the crisis hotline for the north Florida/Big Bend area. The newspaper article I read indicated they were always looking for new volunteers to be crisis counselors for their hotlines. The training was extensive and the only requirement was that you faithfully attended all of the training sessions and you committed to doing 200 hours or one (1) year of volunteer work after your training was completed.

uring my long police career I’ve had more training, reference all sorts of different topics and issues, than I even care to remember. Yet, I can truthfully say that the training I received to become a phone counselor with 2-1-1 was some of the best, if not the best, training I have ever received. It was very detailed and it involved lots of role-playing. I’m sure the thought of role-playing in front of others might turn some would-be volunteers off, but to be honest, it was very informative and helpful, and it was even kind of fun too.

Even with all
of my past experience, training and job knowledge, becoming a good telephone counselor became a definite challenge for me. I quickly found that I needed to change the overall way I viewed and sometimes even interacted with people. One of the very first things the 2-1-1 training covered was the need for a phone counselor to be able to empathize with a caller. Could I put myself in the caller's place and imagine what they were feeling? Police officers, unfortunately, sometimes develop a hard outer shell and they purposely condition themselves not to become emotionally involved with the many different people they encounter. This defense mechanism is what often keeps an officer from losing his sanity as he/she deals with the cruelty and unhappiness they often see. Could I empathize? I didn't know.

counselors are also required to be non-judgmental when they talk with the people that call in. Non-judgmental? I’d spent my entire law enforcement career making judgments and now 2-1-1 wanted me to turn this trait off completely. They also don’t want their counselors to come across as being authoritative. Again, being a cop is one of the most authoritative jobs there is. If you’re not authoritative then there’s a real good chance you might not survive. As a cop you need to take charge of situations and be in control, but now 2-1-1 wanted me to turn this trait off too. Phone counselors are also requested not to give callers advice and/or suggestions. The 2-1-1 philosophy is to empower the individual callers to come up with their own solutions, if possible. I admit, these challenges made me wonder just how successful I would be as a 2-1-1 phone counselor. I’ve been with 2-1-1 Big Bend for several years now, and I fulfilled my 200-hour commitment long ago. In fact, before this year is out I may even reach 500 volunteer hours, which is not that far away.

2-1-1 Big Bend
is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology and it is a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Even though there are areas of America without their own crisis hotlines, people can still dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and they will be connected to the crisis center that is nearest to them.

Because 2-1-1 handles the Suicide Hotline for the north Florida/Big Bend area, the suicide related training they give their telephone counselors is extensive. All the things I wish I had known before, when I was face-to-face with that young boy who threatened to kill himself with a knife, now I learned these
things after my law enforcement career was finally over. I only wish I had this valuable training before I became a police officer. I think it would have made me a better officer, and probably a much better human being too.

any of the calls we get at 2-1-1 are very routine in nature, and occasionally a caller probably intends to get 4-1-1, instead of 2-1-1. In addition to counseling people who are in crisis, 2-1-1 counselors give out all sorts of referrals, ranging from A to Z. Some people call because they need help paying this month’s utility bill. Some need shelter, some need support groups and the list of referrals 2-1-1 gives out is almost endless. And, in any one 24-hour period, 2-1-1 Big Bend will get approximately one (1) call reference an individual thinking about and/or threatening suicide. This might be a first-party type call, from the person themselves; or a second-party type call from a concerned friend or family member.

A couple of nights ago I worked a three-hour volunteer shift at 2-1-1. It was unusually quiet and I didn't have a call all evening, not until "Dave" called. Dave is not, of course, his real name. 2-1-1 takes the
confidentiality of their caller's information very seriously and that's why I can't go into any great or descriptive detail. But, Dave said that he wanted to die and he saw no other way out. I talked with him for almost forty-five minutes and again, without going into detail, the call was concluded in a positive manner and Dave got the help he so desperately needed. A successful call like this one always makes me feel so good inside, because I know I've been able to help someone who really needed it. And, I didn't have to jump in front of a speeding truck, or wrestle a gun or a knife away from someone, to do it. When I think back on all the gruesome and bloody suicide investigations I've been involved in during my career, it is such a rewarding experience to be able to intercede before things get so bad that the only thing the police can do is to call for the medical examiner.

I would suggest that anyone thinking of pursuing a career in law enforcement might want to seriously consider volunteering with their local 2-1-1 first. The training will be invaluable to them and being able to mention 2-1-1 as a reference on their resume won't look that bad either.

Author of book: Badge 149 - "Shots Fired!"
My book's web site:

Monday, October 8, 2007

Why I believe we still need the death penalty

The Wynne Unit is one of the oldest in the Texas prison system and it was established way back in 1883. Along with two other prisons, which share about 1,500 acres with the Wynne Unit, it is located approximately 80 miles north of Houston, in Huntsville. It straddles the main north/south highway between Houston and Dallas. The Wynne Unit is home to approximately 2,600 inmates of various custody levels. Monday morning; September 24, 2007, a sad and senseless thing happened there. But, it shouldn’t have.

Corrections Officer Susan Louise Canfield, a 59-year old grandmother, and a seven year veteran of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), was murdered by two inmates who were attempting to escape. These two inmates, along with more than 70 other prisoners, were working outside the prison’s fence at the Wynne Unit. They were assigned to what is sometimes called the “hoe” squad, which is when a group of inmates literally use hoes to clear farm lands of weeds and other unwanted brush and vegetation.

A group of six corrections officers, which included Susan Canfield, plus a supervisor, watched over this large group of inmates. All of these corrections officers were armed and on horseback. I’ve read several different accounts about what happened, and although basically they all tell the same tragic story, I’m not really sure what happened, and when. But, I’m sure in time, after the investigation and reviews are fully finalized, we will know exactly what transpired, but right now some things are just a little unclear.

The two white male inmates, Jerry Duane Martin, 37, and John Ray Falk Jr., 40, approached one of the male corrections officers on horseback. They used the pretext that one of them had a watch and he wanted the officer to hold it for him. Martin handed the watch to the 29-year old officer and that’s when he pulled him down off of his horse. He struggled with the officer for his weapons and then when he got possession of them, he tossed the officer’s rifle to Falk.

One version I read said that when Falk got the rifle almost immediately he began to fire at Canfield. She reportedly returned fire. Three other corrections officers also apparently returned fire. Although a number of shots were exchanged between Martin and Falk, and the officers, no one was hit during this brief but intense gunfight. Later, after everything was finally over, it was learned that Corrections Officer Canfield’s horse had indeed been hit, apparently by the suspect’s fire.

After the initial struggle with the first male corrections officer, when they got his rifle, Martin and Falk went over a fence that separated the field they’d been in from the nearby City of Huntsville Service Center. Martin and Falk stole a City of Huntsville flatbed truck that was parked there. The truck was parked behind the fence, on city property, right next to the 1,400-acre vegetable field being tilled by Martin, Falk and the other inmates. Two street sign workers were apparently picking up street sign materials at a municipal building which was adjacent to the prison and, contrary to policy, they left the keys in the truck’s ignition. I’m almost certain that when all the reviews are finally concluded, these two city workers will more than likely be disciplined for their failure to follow policy. Unfortunately, this “wake up call” for them will come to late to help Corrections Officer Susan Canfield.

As the other corrections officers fired at them and their now stolen vehicle, Martin and Falk drove the stolen truck into Canfield’s horse as she tried to stop them. She, and I assume the horse, fell to the ground. She reportedly died instantly. The two inmates then grabbed her rifle and handgun and fled the area. I believe this is the way things happened, but I’m not 100% sure. Did Martin and Falk have a previous struggle with Corrections Officer Canfield, to get her weapons, as one account I read seemed to indicate, or was she already dead when they took them from her? I’m sure the investigators in this case already know exactly what happened, and in time we will know too. And, of course, none of this will change the brutal fact that these two vicious thugs murdered Susan Canfield!

After their violent escape Martin and Falk quickly abandoned their stolen truck, about a mile away from where they had murdered Susan Canfield. They then confronted a woman at a bank drive-through lane in Huntsville, and took her car by force. I believe the woman in question was also taken along with the vehicle, because one account I read said they had taken a hostage. Huntsville P.D. officers, who were already apparently looking for the two escapees, quickly took off in pursuit of the carjacked vehicle. They shot out one of the vehicle’s tires and Martin and Falk jumped out of the car and again tried to flee on foot.

In addition to officers from many different agencies, the massive manhunt to find the two killers included at least one police helicopter, lawmen on horseback and eager and hungry bloodhounds. The TDCJ reported that Falk was captured within an hour. They found Martin hiding in a tree about 3½ hours later. He was in a wooded area just west of the I-45 Interstate, and south of state highway 30. And, when they did find Martin he was reportedly shirtless and wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. He did this in an attempt to throw off the search dogs that he knew would be trying to locate his scent.

Unfortunately, there seems to have been a major violation of policy that allowed Martin and Falk to put their escape plan into motion. According to reports, TDCJ policy says that mounted corrections officers working with “field squads” are required to stay a minimum of 30 feet away from the inmates they are guarding. No inmate on foot should ever be allowed to approach an officer on horseback. The officers on horseback form a kind of perimeter around the field workers, and they act very similar to the officers manning the guard towers at the prison itself. No inmate is ever allowed to get near an armed officer, and for good reason. Again, I’m sure the corrections officer who violated this policy, and allowed Martin and Falk to gain control of him and his weapons, will eventually be disciplined. But once again, this will be too late to help Susan Canfield.

Initially, the horse Susan Canfield was riding was thought to only have cuts and bruises. Later, they noted a wound that they thought was a cut that resulted from the horse skidding along the gravel driveway. Eventually, after the horse exhibited symptoms of a more serious injury they examined the horse again and found a bullet hole under its girth strap. Sadly, the horse had to be euthanized. Pecos may have been the name of Corrections Officer Canfield’s horse, but I’m not really certain of this. In none of the accounts I read did they name her horse, but I did find a picture of Susan Canfield happily sitting on a pretty horse named Pecos and I assume this may have been the same horse she rode that fatal day.

Susan Canfield’s husband is a training officer with the Houston Police Department. She also had two daughters and a son, plus two grandchildren.

So, getting back to the title of this narrative, why do I think we need to keep the death penalty? First of all, I do realize that not all fifty states have the death penalty, but in Florida, where I live, we do.

Most police officers probably favor the death penalty. I know I do. But, I do agree it should only be used for the worst of the worse and it should only be imposed if there is absolutely no doubt at all about the person’s guilt. That means (in my opinion) that for most homicides, which are mostly “heat of the moment” passion-type crimes, the death penalty would not be appropriate.

I do believe that when an individual murders a law enforcement officer, the death penalty is definitely appropriate. But, sadly, even cop killers do not always get the ultimate penalty. A perfect example involved the guy who murdered Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Bryant Peney in 1996. I use this specific example because I was a Ft. Lauderdale officer myself, and I knew Bryant Peney. He was an outstanding young man and an excellent officer. He should not have died at such a young age. His killer was convicted and the jury did not recommend the death penalty. In Florida, the judge has the final say, and the judge in this case felt that the death penalty was indeed appropriate, so he disregarded the jury’s recommendation and he gave this bad guy the death penalty. Well, in Florida, if a judge disregards a jury’s recommendation for leniency in a homicide case, the Florida Supreme Court will almost always overrule that judge. That’s what happened to the killer of Officer Bryant Peney. He was sentenced to life, without parole.

I know that many good and intelligent people don’t like the death penalty for a variety of reasons, and they want it abolished completely. This is an emotional issue and I do understand some of their arguments. But, if we do away with the death penalty completely, don’t we make it a lot easier for the violent thugs in our prisons (like Martin and Falk) to kill our corrections officers? If a guy is already in jail for murder, doing “life without parole” (as Merle Haggard says in one of his song), then what is there to prevent these low-lifes from killing a prison guard, or two, or three? What are they going to do to him, give him another “life without parole” sentence? I have absolutely no statistics to back up my beliefs, but just good old-fashioned common sense tells me that if we do away with the death penalty completely, then attacks and murders of corrections officers around the country WILL go up.

Let’s get back to Martin and Falk who killed Texas Corrections Officer Susan Canfield. Martin had been convicted of attempted capital murder and he had served just 10 years of a 50-year sentence. He had been charged in Collin County with two counts of attempted murder after a domestic dispute he was involved in turned potentially deadly. Somewhere along the line Martin apparently indicated that he intended to shoot himself and he eventually ran from the cops who tried to stop him. One account I read of the Collin County incident said that Martin fired on police negotiators that had tried to stop him from shooting himself during a four-hour standoff. In all, he reportedly fired seven rounds from a .38 caliber revolver at the police negotiators and Collin County Sheriff’s deputies. In 1997, Martin was convicted of two attempted murder charges, along with a charge of aggravated assault. And, documents from TDCJ’s web site indicated that in addition to the 50-year sentence, Martin was also facing another 60 years for some other additional charges. I don't know if these other charges are connected with the Collin County incident, or are from some other violent event.

Falk? Well, our boy Falk was already a grand prize winner! He had been convicted of murdering a lawyer in Matagorda county and he had served 21 years of a life sentence. Falk reportedly confessed to striking the man over the head with a piece of lumber and then cutting his throat with a knife. He and an accomplice then stuffed the victim’s body into the back of a car and drove it into the Colorado River. Falk was up for parole in 2006. It was denied.

So, why were these two walking time bombs of violence allowed to work outside the prison’s confines? Because, according to the TDCJ, based on their good disciplinary records while in prison, they were only classified as “minimum” security inmates and they could do field work outside the prison while under the supervision of officers. Okay, sounds good to me. But, I wonder what Susan Canfield’s husband, her children, and her grandchildren, think about this cockeyed explanation. As with everything else, I’m sure the TDCJ screening procedures will be reviewed, and maybe even revamped, but this won’t help Susan Canfield.

I know many individuals are still not convinced that the death penalty should be used, under any circumstances. Okay, I respect their right to have that opinion, even though I don’t agree with it. But, I would ask just one more question: What about the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh? Didn’t he deserve to die for what he had done? He coldly and brutally killed 168 men, women and children. Children! Nineteen of the victims were children, fifteen of which were in the building’s day care center when the bomb went off. Three pregnant women and their unborn babies also died. Later, when McVeigh once spoke about the bombing, he coldly called these deaths “collateral damage” - as if he could care less.

Whenever I might start to wonder if the death penalty should be imposed, especially for the worst of the worse, I take a quick look at the famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken by Charles Porter. It is the picture of firefighter Chris Fields holding a dying infant in his arms. The baby's bloodied and battered body speaks volumes about McVeigh's cruelty and inhumanity. Timothy McVeigh was a monster and no one will ever make me believe that executing him, and other animals like him, isn't the right and the just thing to do!