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Criminal Justice Update

A Closer Look at Two Troubling Topics

On the heels of a global health pandemic, the Ohio Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Conference will return in person to the Hyatt Regency Columbus this year on Oct. 6-7 to explore solutions to two national social epidemics that are every bit as worrisome as COVID.

Keynote presentations — one to open and the other to close the conference — will focus on preventing police suicides and school shootings. In between, 15 workshops will be presented on topics as wide-ranging as recognizing elder abuse, interacting with people with disabilities, and solving cold cases.

Although their subjects are vastly different, keynote speakers Neil Gang and Frank Straub share a common purpose: to prevent tragedies by identifying and addressing the circumstances that bring them about.

Police suicides

Neil Gang’s colleague and friend Asher Rosinsky committed suicide in 1997 when both men were officers at the Pembroke Pines Police Department in Florida.

“The most profound thing happened after that, and it affected my career and my life,” Gang said. “We went back to work the next day, and nobody talked about it. It was business as usual.”

Police Chief Neil GangRosinsky’s death and the wave of suicides that has since crashed down on law enforcement in the ensuing years motivated Gang to develop a wellness model in 2018, four years after becoming police chief in Pinole, California. Named for his friend and created for the Pinole department, the Asher Model soon attracted interest from other departments. Gang estimates he now gives between 30 and 50 presentations a year.

“Our primary purpose in law enforcement is the preservation of life,” Gang said. “Externally, we do a great job of that. But internally, we don’t do very well at all. We’re losing people left and right, and this profession needs something better.”

Definitive statistics on law enforcement suicides are hard to come by. For starters, there was no national database until the FBI launched one in January. In addition, it’s widely acknowledged that police suicides, like suicides in general, are significantly underreported. Furthermore, it can take time to verify a suicide. And, finally, the organizations that collect data on law enforcement suicides, including the FBI, rely on information that is voluntarily submitted. Understandably, variations exist between sources.

The nonprofit group Blue H.E.L.P., for example, reports 143 suicides in 2020, while a survey by the Ruderman Family Foundation reports 116.

Even when the numbers disagree, though, there is consensus on one thing: More officers typically die by suicide than in the line of duty.

“It’s alarming,” Gang said, “and it’s an epidemic.”

Subtitled “A 7-Point Approach to a Culture of Wellness: Turning Tragedy into Hope,” the Asher Model starts with the notion that law enforcement leaders must be proactive in creating an environment “where it’s OK not to be OK.” In this environment, Gang said, conversations about mental health are brought out of the shadows; struggling colleagues are helped by trained peer-support teams; 24/7 resources are available for officers and their spouses; and healthy habits, even spiritual outreach, are promoted.

Gang is optimistic that progress is being made in the profession.

“But there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said, “and unfortunately we’ll never know the lives we save by the efforts we’re putting forth.”

School shootings

Ghosts. It’s a label that news media have used to describe the troubled adolescents responsible for so many of the nation’s school shootings.

Frank Straub, director of the National Policing Institute’s Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, understands the analogy.

Frank Straub“Everybody kind of knows them, but nobody really does,” he said. “They’re in the schools and going to class, but they’re not really engaged in class. They sit by themselves in the cafeteria. They don’t really join any groups, nor are they necessarily invited to join any groups.”

Straub is a 30-year veteran of state and federal law enforcement with a master’s degree in forensic psychology and a doctorate in criminal justice.

He has conducted in-depth studies of targeted mass attacks from around the country, including the San Bernardino terrorist attack and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, and is currently a non-resident fellow at West Point’s Center for Combating Terrorism.

As part of his work at the Center for Targeted Violence Prevention, Straub leads the Averted School Violence Database, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Justice that tracks averted and completed school attacks and gives researchers insights into the decisions and circumstances that either led to a tragedy or prevented one. 

In his conference address, Straub will focus on a case from Michigan to talk about threat assessment in schools and how to identify and help high-risk adolescents who might be inclined to make those threats.

The case centers on a Paw Paw High student whose shooting plot was foiled by his mother and stepfather. The boy served a year in a juvenile detention facility, but three years later he killed a man and critically injured the man’s wife in a random shooting.

“This case demonstrates the need for long-term intervention to prevent the next tragedy,” Straub said. “Too often we think we can engage in quick fixes, and we can’t.”

Straub’s center and the Michigan State University Department of Psychiatry are preparing to test the use of specially trained intensive support teams during a five-year pilot program in Michigan.

“I think we have to look at these individuals as true medical emergencies, like we would for somebody having a heart attack or stroke,” he said. “In the same way, we have to recognize the warning signs when individuals are becoming ghosts, and we have to act. If we do that, we have the opportunity not only to save that person but to protect the community.”