Smell the Grass and Say “Today is gonna be a great day”
by Sgt Clarke Paris (retired)
Las Vegas (NV) Metropolitan Police Department
Pain Behind the Badge
“I need help!” Those were three words I thought I would never say. I did though. It took 21 years but I finally mustered up enough courage to say “I need help.” After all, just like every other police officer in America, I was chosen for this job. I was chosen not only because of my military background but because I did well on the entrance exam. I fit the profile. I had both intelligence and common sense. I had everything required to be a good police officer and in this day and age, law enforcement agencies would never hire a man or woman whom they did not think would be able to handle the stress of the job, right? ….Wrong! We are human and the very same attributes that make us good cops are the same personality traits that will cause this job to destroy us, if we let them. After all, America picks men and women who are tenacious, caring, intelligent, compassionate, and who have leadership qualities, to be their police officers. Those qualities are the very same ones that can cause this job to destroy us.
Looking from the outside in, one may not understand why police officers change. Why they sometimes commit Domestic Violence, why they might shoplift, drive drunk, or use excessive force. Why they sometimes commit suicide. Police officers are people who would most likely never commit those acts. Unfortunately, the stressors related to police work quite often manifest themselves in that very behavior that ruins careers. It’s not because there is no psychological help available. It’s not because the help doesn’t work. It’s because the cops, quite often, do not seek, nor do they accept the help that can save their career and sometimes, their life.
I became a police officer in 1985 and cruised through the first 21 years of my career. We even had a 4 hour presentation on police stress when I was in the academy. Of course, just like all the other recruits, I felt stress would never impact my life. As my career progressed, I even created a theory as to how and why I apparently handled stress so well: When friends or peers would ask me how I handled the stress associated with the job, I simply said “Police work is like doing dirty dishes.” They of course, would ask me to elaborate. I would then explain, “If you live alone and you wash all of the dishes prior to going to sleep and when you get up in the morning and find dirty dishes in the sink, what would you do?” They inevitably said “I don’t know.” “Do the dishes!” I would say. Their response was nearly always “Wow, no wonder you handle the stress so well , Clarke.” It sounds like a pretty good theory doesn’t it? It worked very well for me for 21 years. In fact, I used that analogy so often, other officers would often say “Going out to do dirty dishes Sarge….see you later.” If you know much about stress, you know my ‘Dirty dishes’ theory is simply an example of disassociation and disassociation is merely a temporary fix to dealing with the stress of our job.
I knew stress would never be a factor for me. As a supervisor, I received training designed to help me to identify struggling officers and learned specifics about our Police Employee Assistance Program (PEAP). I had it covered. As a supervisor for 19 years, I referred several officers to PEAP, all the while, believing I personally, would never need assistance from PEAP. I just kept doing the dishes.
I don’t think Las Vegas is the suicide capital of America, however, while supervising a day shift squad in 2007, I responded to several suicides in one day. Two of the suicides stick in my mind to this day. One was an 82 year old man who had cancer and the other was a 13 year old boy who was failing Algebra. Now, I had handled several suicides in my career and they never affected me, but this day was different. I could feel my emotions boiling as I went enroute to the call involving the teenager. These feelings weren’t new to me as I had noticed over the past several weeks, a change in my emotions. I managed to maintain control of my internal struggles and handled the call like a true professional. While in the house with the victim and several family members, however, the mother broke down, grabbed hold of me and began bawling. She was hyper-ventilating and nearly collapsed. All I could do was look at her as her snot rubbed onto my uniform and I thought to myself, “Don’t cry, Clarke. Don’t do it, you’re a cop. Be strong.”
I survived the moment like a true professional, went out to my police car, started it, turned on the air conditioning, and then broke down. I was crying just like the mother of the 13 year old boy. In the midst of that cry, a gentleman approached my car and tapped on the window. He said “Excuse me, officer.” He then abruptly stopped himself in surprise as he saw me crying and said, “Are you okay?” I had never been so ashamed of myself in my entire life. He caught me in my weakest moment and of all things, it was just a suicide. It wasn’t a shooting or a fight for my life. It was just a suicide. As the man stood next to my car, I thought to myself, “I don’t want anyone to ever say “The coffee is on me” or “I don’t know how you do it?” I wasn’t worthy. Well, I regained my composure, answered his question and went on my way. This day was very significant though as it was the day everything changed. Every bad thing that had ever happened in my life began coming back and it all came back with a vengeance! I had become a mess.
I might have sought help if I weren’t a cop, but I was. I was a cop and I didn’t believe in counselors, therapists, or psychologists. I always said, “When they put a badge on their chest and a gun on their side, they can tell me how to do my job.” That philosophy nearly ruined my life. It was not only my belief but I made sure all of my friends, family and peers knew it was my belief……… for two decades. I had run my mouth so much about my opinion of psychological help that there was no way I could now accept that help.
I did however, have a plan to get better and that plan was to tell my wife I was struggling and then, we would fix the problem together.
Neither my wife nor I ever thought my job would affect me in a negative way and the day I told her I needed help was the day everything changed. I finally developed enough courage to tell her I was not okay and rather than give me a hug and say we would fix it together, she got mad. Actually, she was furious. She looked at me and I could see the rage on her face as she said, “Are you kidding me?” My wife then went on talking about our bills, our house, the car, the kids in college and on and on. She even reminded me that we talk about these things on a regular basis.
Now, when we get to this part of the presentation at our seminar, you can see that most of the folks in the audience are not too fond of my wife and I always take the opportunity to explain that her reaction was based on what I had shared with her and told her over years of marriage. I never told her how I really felt, not if it made me look bad. After all, I was her Rock of Gibraltar. She had no idea of my struggles because, just like nearly every other cop in America, I was a good actor and I told my wife only the things I wanted her to know. My wife and I argued, we talked, and we cried. Neither of us had any training to educate us on the possibility of such an incident taking place in our lives. Eventually, I sought professional help (with the support of my wife) and the day I walked into the counselor’s office for the first time, I was shaking like Puff Daddy at a Police Convention. Once I was in his office and I began talking (crying), I began to feel better. I felt better for the first time in a long time. There was no magic. There was no medicine. Simply, I was able to relay my feelings and not be judged. I learned that Clarke Paris wasn’t the only cop who was struggling with what the job dealt him. Subsequent treatment brought me back to where I needed to be (Happy, healthy, and productive) and life was good.
During all of this time, through all of the struggles and all of the pain and all of the learning, we created and produced an award-winning documentary movie called ‘The Pain Behind The Badge’ and wrote a book entitled ‘My Life For Your Life.’ Now, 5 years later, we have presented our story (and seminar) to thousands of police officers and military personnel across the U.S., to include VA Tech Police Department after the 32 student massacre, Lakewood Police Department after their 4 officers were killed in a coffee shop, several of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Symposiums, and the Naval Special Warfare Unit 3 stationed in Bahrain. What has come of those presentations? We have met hundreds of officers who were struggling and eventually sought treatment as the pathway to living life as they hoped it would be when they began their career.
What have I learned in the 5 years since my near collapse? I learned that police agencies hire the best people they can find to keep their communities safe. The best people quite often struggle when they deal with death, violence, danger, and the stress of the job.
Those people, once wearing a badge, face their greatest struggles when they realize they themselves may need to ask for help. The suicide numbers for police officers may be controversial but what we do know is….. More police officers commit suicide than are killed by assailants.
That is what needs to change. Officers need to help themselves; they need to fight for their wellness like they fight for their communities.
Should you be struggling, know you are not alone and if you’re not struggling, know that the odds are one of your peers may be struggling. The help available to police officers DOES work but we must first accept that help before any positive changes can take place. America’s heroes deserve to be happy and healthy. When you step outside and the grass has been cut and you take a big sniff of the ‘Fresh Cut Grass Smell’, if you don’t say “Today is gonna be a great day”’ perhaps you should take a step back and ask yourself why, and………………….seek help if you need it.
About the Author: Clarke enlisted in the US Navy in 1982. In 1985, he became a police officer with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. After 26+ years with LVMPD, he retired as a Police Sergeant in 2012. During his tenure with the LVMPD, he worked in a variety of assignments including an undercover assignment in Vice/Narcotics. He worked as a Field Training Officer and a Traffic Officer (Motorcycle). As a supervisor, he worked as the Field Training Coordinator, a Patrol Sergeant, a Special Events Coordinator, a Traffic Sergeant, and a Field Training Sergeant. In 1998, he was honored as Police Officer of the Year as well as one of the Most Distinguished Men in Southern Nevada. He created and produced the award winning documentary film on police stress and suicide entitled ‘The Pain Behind The Badge‘ and in 2011 his book, ‘My Life For Your Life‘, now required reading for Law Enforcement Students at the University of Minnesota Mankato, was released. Clarke now works full time on the seminar, Winning the Battle, with his wife, Tracie.