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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Kim Colegrove's name.
Former Miami-Dade Police director Alfredo "Freddy" Ramirez was outspoken about the need for police to have mental health support, joining a movement that has taken hold in just the last decade.
"Our officers face the worst of humanity on a daily basis, and when they return home, it can be hard for them to leave their experience in the car," he wrote in an April MDPD newsletter, encouraging people to take advantage of the department's counseling services.Then, on a Sunday night in July, Ramirez shot himself in the head on the side of the highway and survived after two surgeries.
The incident was regarded as a suicide attempt by first responders. According to the officer who first provided aid, Ramirez said he didn’t mean to do it as he stumbled off the highway shoulder with severe injuries. But in the months since, neither Freddy Ramirez nor his wife Jody Ramirez have called it anything else.
His position leading the largest police force in the Southeast has been filled in the interim by former deputy director Stephanie Daniels. On Wednesday, Ramirez announced he is giving up his candidacy for Miami-Dade's first elected sheriff in decades, though he was considered a front-runner when he entered the race in May.
Ramirez is the only one who knows what was going through his head when he pulled the trigger, and mental health experts warn against seeking the answers as to why someone would try to take their own life.
But the incident brings up the stickiness of the mental health stigma within law enforcement. Job problems, marital strife and access to a firearm are all risk factors that were present on the evening of Ramirez’s attempt. But the suicide intervention programs that could have helped him in a vulnerable time were dependent on his willingness to admit he was in a crisis. According to experts, that is something officers still struggle to do.
Instead, it was his wife who intercepted at the last minute, likely saving his life. She declined to comment on this story and instead continues to focus on Freddy's recovery. For many suicide attempt survivors, that recovery can lead to a long, fulfilling and healthy life.
Miami police director Freddy Ramirez's fraught night in Tampa
Public records obtained by USA TODAY and statements by law enforcement, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, and the Ramirezes string together events of the evening prior that involved a public marital dispute, a surprising encounter with Tampa police, and remorse that pushed Ramirez to offer his resignation.
On the evening of Sunday, July 23,witnesses said Freddy Ramirez and Jody Ramirez were arguing on the street outside the JW Marriott Tampa Water Street, where they were attending the Florida Sheriff’s Association summer conference.
“Thirty years married, I know what buttons to push, he knows what buttons to push,” Jody would later tell the police, without disclosing what the argument was about.
Unidentified witnesses told hotel security they had seen a couple arguing at the hotel and the man put a gun to his head saying he intended to "end it here." When the Tampa police arrived, they couldn't locate the original witnesses, but hotel security officers had followed the couple to the 12th floor and provided police with a key.
By about 7 p.m., 11 officers had gathered near the elevator on the 12th floor. A team of them marched down the hall behind a ballistic shield to the Ramirezes' room before loudly knocking and asking them to come out. Jody opened the door and was immediately escorted around the corner to the elevator. Freddy, after several demands from police to put his hands above his head, was handcuffed.
The Ramirezes told police they were arguing outside. Freddy denied ever taking his gun out while at the hotel, while Jody first said she couldn’t remember if he took his gun out. Eventually, she told the police no, he did not take his gun out.
Body camera footage shows Ramirez pleading with officers. "I'm the director of the police department, you don't do this to me man,” he says. "I didn't do anything! You know if you write a report, you guys are gonna blow my (expletive) up.”He collects himself, looking directly in the body camera several times, and politely complies with the officers for the remainder of the encounter.
Freddy denied having any suicidal thoughts, as the video shows him saying, “Not at all, I’m good.” Jody denied feeling unsafe. Police deemed that he did not meet Florida’s Baker Act criteria, which would have provided him with emergency services and temporary detention for up to 72 hours for a mental health examination.
The Ramirezes would later call this episode shocking, stating that being put in handcuffs is a “profoundly disturbing event for any who experiences it," in a joint statement issued via a family lawyer. "It was especially so for such a distinguished leader of law-enforcement, with an unblemished record of more than 28 years of exemplary service in protecting the public.”
Kicked out of their hotel, the Ramirezes started the four-hour drive back to Miami. Shortly after getting on the road, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Ramirez called Mayor Levine Cava. Without explaining, he said he had made “mistakes” and would offer his resignation, according to Cava.
Less than an hour later, at 9:23 p.m., Jody called emergency services from the side of I-75 approximately 15 miles south of Tampa. They hadn’t made it out of Hillsborough County. Through screams, she told first responders that her husband had shot himself in the head. Between panicked cries, she said Freddy was walking away from the car towards traffic. Eventually, he made it to the grass by the side of the road. Freddy can be heard in the background of the 911 call saying, “I can’t breathe.”
According to their statement, they were still “bewildered and distraught” from the incident in Tampa on the drive home. But Jody grabbed his arm in time to stop the shot from being fatal.
Suicide prevention programs won’t work until mental health stigma ends
Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The Miami-Dade Police Department runs a suicide intervention initiative out of its Psychological Services Bureau, which also offers counseling with an emphasis in confidentiality.
The initiative includes an annual training program and a 24/7 wellness check system specifically designed for officers who have been arrested or relieved from duty. John Violanti, a research professor and police stress expert at the University at Buffalo, said that job loss or job problems are one of the most prevalent factors in officers who die by suicide.
“From the inception of its suicide prevention program, the (PSB) has conceptualized suicide as a problem-solving behavior," states a program description by MDPD. "Specifically, within law enforcement, this problem-solving behavior is most often of rapid onset aimed at the preservation of a threatened self-image. A police officer rapidly cycles from embarrassment to humiliation and suicide is seen as a means to avoid the loss of identity as a police officer.”
Officers or former officers who receive a wellness check have a suicide assessment done, and if not presently at risk, friends and family are notified to provide extra support.
The Tampa Police Department has started a peer support team, according to Lieutenant Lisa Parashis who oversees TPD’s officer wellness initiatives. The team is meant to be a confidential source for officers to talk through what they are experiencing. They also proactively reach out to people who were injured, put on administrative leave or involved in a shooting.
Even with these programs that take into account the suicide risk factors that disproportionately affect police officers, Parashis said that fighting the stigma of mental health among officers is an uphill battle.
“Peer support is very important and it's going to take some time for people to really gain the trust and the willingness to participate,” Parashis said. “We try to look out for each other. We check in …. you know, ‘hey, how you doing?’ But the standard answer most officers give is: ‘I'm fine, I'm okay.’ So we're trying to break that stigma.”
Finally, the Florida Baker Act applies to anyone in the state, in or out of law enforcement, who might be a threat to themselves or others. For an officer to detain someone under the Baker Act, they must have evidence.
Freddy and Jody insisted that neither of them was in danger, and police reports from the night say that he did not meet the criteria.
Their instinct to stay tight-lipped comes as no surprise to Kim Colegrove, who lost her husband to suicide three months after he retired from a long career in law enforcement. Now, she runs Pause First, an organization that provides mindfulness training to officers.
“Police officers know how to (bs) people,” she said. “And so they know what to say if they get called in and someone's asking them questions, they know what they need to say so that there won't be any red flags.”
She said for her husband, that drive to mask emotional struggles stemmed from a fear of being reprimanded, put on leave, or having his gun and badge taken away.
As firearms are the most common method in fatal suicides, taking them away if someone is struggling may seem like an obvious solution. But Violanti says that it can have the opposite effect with police.
“If you take the firearm and badge because the officer is found to be suicidal, you've taken away the symbolic factor of his job,” Violanti said. “That only work makes things worse. That only exacerbates the crisis. … So the solution is difficult.”
Breaking the stigma has come a long way, but education will help it further
A psychologist who works with police, David Englert said that crises can erupt rather quickly. In Ramirez’s case, Jody told a first responder, he pulled over suddenly and shot himself before she knew it.
Advocates say that greater awareness of the stressors of the job, how they can impact all aspects of an officer’s well-being and the available resources are keys for breaking down that stigma.
Many experts commented that breaking down the stigma and the resources available for officers have come a long way in the past decade. Organizations that aim to provide those resources started within the last decade, and those who work in the space say it has spread to wider acceptance within the last five years.
Englert said he has even seen some "ahead-of-the-curve" departments requiring yearly wellness check-ups. Violanti pointed toward police departments in California that have holistic wellness programs similar to the TPD’s, which covers mental, emotional, spiritual, physical and financial wellness.
Shawn Thomas runs 1st Conferences and partners with 1st H.E.L.P to raise awareness around officer wellness around the country.
“When I started doing the conference in 2016, there weren't a ton of resources, but there's a lot more resources now,” she said, noting that her organization has put on 41 conferences since then. “The more people that are talking about it, the better (for) breaking the stigma.”
Officers who are struggling can find the resources compiled by Thomas and 1st H.E.L.P. on this website.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Miami police chief Freddy Ramirez's suicide attempt offers lessons