First responders see, feel overwhelming fallout from suicides

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WALLA WALLA -- Barry Blackman remembers the first suicide he attended nearly 20 years ago. In detail.

Blackman, a captain at the Walla Walla County Sheriff's Office, had some clue of what he would be walking into.

A decade as a jail officer had given Blackman plenty of time to read all kinds of police reports, he said last week. "I had a good idea of what I would be seeing."

The victim was a young man, about 22 years old. He was lying outside his rural home, in a garden area. A single gunshot wound straight through the head was the first piece of evidence.

Evidence, because each suicide investigation starts as a possible homicide investigation, Blackman explained. "We have to look at the possibility of foul play. Because we don't know."

Officers gather evidence such as cell phones, weapons and medications. They photograph the scene, then talk to family members, friends and observers.

"We start collecting statements from everyone, trying to reconstruct the last couple of days," he noted.

That gives law enforcement the chance to assess whether the deceased showed signs of depression or intent. "Did they draw out all their money and give it away? Did they take their friends out to lunch the last week?"

The immediate area has to be taped off and cleared out, noted Deputy Kent Boyd. "We try to get the family members away from the spot. It can be hard for them."

At one such investigation, a man had used a high-powered hunting rifle. His wife insisted on holding his hand, he said, even as parts of her husband's body were missing.

Sixty to 70 percent of those who take their own life will leave a note, but not always in a noticeable spot, Blackman said. And when there is no note? "It brings a lot of anguish to family members. They wonder if the person actually did it or if there was foul play."

Mostly, everyone just asks "why," the captain said.

He did, at that first suicide. "As I walked out to the scene, I saw a man in a prone position on the ground. A pistol was near his right hand and there was a large pool of blood. It was obvious he was deceased."

The young man appeared to be very healthy, Blackman remembered. "I asked myself 'Why would he do this?' It seemed like a real shame."

Many suicides leave a much less calm scene, the men said. With some methods, a body is hard to identify -- even dental work can be gone. "What's there are literally fragments to ID a victim," Blackman said.

Once the initial work is done, the Walla Walla County coroner is called. That professional will do a parallel investigation and officers can turn their attention to whoever found the body, Blackman said.

Training allows law enforcement to give comfort and explain the emotions and question that are going to come, he added.

Caring for themselves, however, is another story for first responders. In addition to growing a thick skin, deputies and others must develop of sort of buffer, the captain said. "Our job gives us that excuse to distance ourselves and we need that. We need to be there for the family and for our job."

He's never been angry at the deceased, Boyd added. "I know I have a job to do and I have to get through it. To be strong for the people there ... you have to use it instead of going wherever you want to go."

But they can't help but travel back to the unexplainable, the officers said. January's five area suicides fly in the face of common wisdom about the subject, Boyd pointed out.

"Do they get to a place and ask 'Why continue?'" Blackman wondered.

People in a suicidal situation seem incapable of asking for support, of opening the door for help, he said. "Communication is the only answer I can think of."

He finds suicide to be an act of selfishness, Blackman said. "So many victims are left that weren't given an opportunity to help."

He's heard suicide defined as "the ultimate selfish act," Boyd echoed. "They don't think of the mess they are leaving behind. I think I agree with that."

Failed suicides are most often desperate cries for help, Blackman said. People will choose a method that can be patched up or reversed, and then call law enforcement. "They are looking for someone to rescue them."

If there is one thing officials would like people to know is that they can call and talk about suicidal thoughts and attempts without fear of legal consequences -- those days in society are long past, he said.

"We refer people to mental health counseling, we don't arrest them."

The topic needs to be taught in schools, just like sex education, Blackman believes. Such a move will have its share of critics, "but I think it should be represented so kids know there is always someone to talk to."

Far better, he added, "to talk to someone than help load them up into a body bag."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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