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The weight of the badge: A closer look at the mental state of police officers

Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group

BALTIMORE (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Police departments have kept quiet for decades about the mental state of officers policing our most violent city streets. Spotlight on America examines the deadly fallout nationwide.

Stress is an everyday part of life for a police officer.

"If you don't manage it over time, it will kill you," said Vernon Herron, Baltimore Police Department. Vernon Herron heads up the Baltimore Department's Officer Safety and Wellness Section.

"You don't get help," Herron said. "It's going to come out somewhere else: arresting a suspect and beating the hell out of him. I don't know why I did that. Using excessive force."

Herron knows firsthand the toll policing can take. Twenty-five years ago his life changed in the parking lot of a local shopping center.

"Dr. Jack Daniels was right there for the first night, the second night, the third night. In fact, I had to rely on Dr. Jack Daniels in order to get to sleep, Herron said."

A traumatized Herron lost his balance and realized he needed professional help.

"The police departments were not equipped to deal with that," Herron said. "They didn't understand it."

Until two years ago, Herron said, officer wellness was shrouded in secrecy.

"Because historically what we've done is if you're an officer and you become an alcoholic, we would terminate you. And heaven forbid if you talk about suicide. If you talk about suicide, then we're definitely going to get rid of you," Herron said.

A report published this year found more officers committed suicide in 2017 than died in the line of duty.

One hundred forty compared to 129.

Alcoholism has also plagued police. One study found up to 23 percent of officers surveyed abuse alcohol. That is three times the national average.

"I was drinking so much I was throwing up," said an unidentified police officer.

For this Baltimore police officer, the weight of the badge became too much to bear.

"I could not function without alcohol," he said. "The Department asked that Spotlight on America not identify him for confidentiality reasons. "During shift change, he said, we would have what we called choir practice, and we would have a couple of beers."

Studies have found the constant exposure to stress can lead officers to abuse alcohol, especially if they have a post-traumatic stress disorder.

Police are six times more likely to suffer from PTSD than the general public.

"People always fighting, yelling, screaming, and that's what we deal with every single day," he said. "The alcohol was helping me deal with that."

In 2017, the struggling patrolman turned to the very person Herron avoided.

"I called my supervisor at work and told him I don’t think I can quit on my own," the officer said.

Within two hours, Herron had the officer heading to rehab.

"We're just normal people you know that just happened to choose this profession," he said.

A profession that is finally confronting the challenges faced by those who've chosen it.

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