The Tragedy of Police Suicides
A young deputy’s brief but traumatic career reveals the hidden crisis facing police in towns large and small
Of all the traumatic things officers see on the job, “shootings are the biggest stressors.”
ON THE MORNING of the funeral, scores of police officers and sheriff’s deputies filed toward the front of St. Theresa Catholic Church, saluting as they passed a black plaque and a silver urn.
The plaque commemorated the summer morning in 2016 when, after only a few months on the job, Sgt. Thomas Connelly opened fire on a suspect during a deadly standoff.
The urn marked the autumn evening 14 months later when Tom turned his own gun on himself.
The 29-year-old’s death had deeply shaken the Langlade County Sheriff’s Office, whose 18 sworn officers were accustomed to dealing with suicides in this vast rural stretch of northern Wisconsin, but never one of their own. It had stunned his parents. What had they missed?
For answers, they’d turned to Dave Korus, a friend and retired police commander. Although he had not known Tom personally, he now stepped to the altar to deliver the eulogy.
Police work took officers to “some of the darkest places in America,” he said, scenes often called “critical incidents.”
“Tom had a critical incident as a police officer,” Dave said.
Although most officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty, police fatally shoot about 1,000 people each year, according to data compiled by the Washington Post.
Some of those incidents trigger public outrage or prosecutions. But even when officers are cleared of wrongdoing and hailed as heroes for their actions, they can come away from shootings deeply damaged. Dave knew that firsthand. His own son—jeff Korus, a patrolman in St. Paul, Minnesota—had been involved in a fatal confrontation with an armed suspect only a few weeks before Tom’s incident, he told the mourners.
What he didn’t say was that he had heard his son’s shouts on the police scanner hours before he could hug him to make sure he was OK. Or how, afterward, his son had stopped telling people he was a police officer.
“The problem with us as first responders,” Dave continued, “is that we take care of others but we don’t want to be other people’s problem. We want to be the one that is standing tall.”
Tom’s suicide had spurred Dave to ask his own son how he was coping, he said. Now he begged the church full of officers and their relatives to do the same.
“Those things that we pick up throughout our career can get heavy,” he said.
TOM CONNELLY WAS a small-town electrician itching for something bigger.
Fifth among 11 children, he had been the quiet center of the boisterous Connelly clan. But the slightly built boy also displayed a protective streak, once chasing down a bully who’d insulted one of his sisters. By his mid-20s, when a cousin became a deputy and shared stories of car chases and drug busts, Tom decided to follow suit.
His father, George Connelly, excitedly called Dave Korus with the news. They had met on a North Dakota Air Force base in 1977. Later, when George became a commercial pilot and Dave became a cop, they kept in close touch by telephone.
Now Dave sounded a note of caution. It was a precarious moment to become a law-enforcement officer in America. White police officers had killed unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and on Staten Island in New York, setting off widespread protests about police brutality and inspiring the Black Lives Matter movement.
When two officers were later shot outside the Ferguson police station, a new slogan—“blue Lives Matter”—also went viral, deepening the divide.
Fatal attacks on law enforcement in the United States have fallen significantly since the early 1970s, but the job remains one of the country’s most dangerous and stressful. And lawenforcement officers face a 54 percent higher risk of suicide than the general population, according to John Violanti, a retired officer who studies police stress at the University at Buffalo.
Of all the traumatic things officers see on the job, Violanti says, “shootings are the biggest stressors.”
Although media coverage often focuses on confrontations in major cities, half of all fatal police shootings occur in small towns or cities with populations of fewer than 100,000. Yet smaller departments such as Langlade’s are less likely to have the resources to help officers in the aftermath.
Dave Korus told George Connelly to keep close tabs on Tom. But he also tried to reassure his friend. The chances that something could go seriously wrong were lower in a place like Langlade County than in St. Paul, where his son had been on night patrol for six years without firing his weapon.
That would change just a few months later.
AT AROUND 3:30 a.m. on May 9, 2016, Jeff Korus and his partner heard a call come over the St. Paul police radio: A man was dragging a woman out of a nearby store at gunpoint.
“We’ve got shots fired,” an officer suddenly shouted over the radio.
As Jeff pulled up, gunfire crackled. His partner ran toward the woman, who lay on the ground, bleeding and screaming for help.
Moments earlier, Jaffort Smith— a 33-year-old man who’d replaced his schizophrenia medication with methamphetamine—had shot her in the face. By the time Jeff arrived, Smith was firing a handgun at the officers.
Jeff doesn’t remember screaming for Smith to drop the gun or, when Smith refused, the sound of his own Glock going off five times. He and three other officers, all white, had shot Smith, who was black, at least a dozen times.
When authorities released the names of the four officers the following day, Jeff worried that he would be next in the national spotlight. But the story quickly faded from the headlines. Jeff was told to return to work after only three days off, though he first had to meet with a St. Paul police psychologist, one of three mandatory meetings for officers involved in shootings.
Although Jeff would eventually be recommended for a medal of honor, he stopped telling neighbors that he was an officer. After Ferguson, he had stopped driving to work in his uniform and tinted his car windows. Now he started carrying his concealed weapon everywhere.
Half of all fatal police shootings occur in small towns or cities with populations of fewer than 100,000.
Within a few weeks, Jeff’s jaw began to lock up and he was grinding his teeth in his sleep. He was thinking about leaving the force, he said. His father sent him to a police psychologist specializing in the use of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing to treat trauma.
After three visits, Jeff’s symptoms had begun to subside. Then on July 26, 2016, his dad called to say that Tom Connelly had just been involved in a fatal shooting.
FOR AN HOUR, Tom Connelly watched through the sights of his AR-15 as Scot Minard begged officers to shoot him.
The 50-year-old had a long criminal record, mostly for theft. He struggled with addiction that had deepened after his daughter killed herself. Police had begun investigating him again over a stolen gun. Minard told friends he’d rather be shot than return to jail.
On July 26, 2016, an officer spotted him driving a stolen car and pulled him over. Minard—drunk and high— stuck the stolen gun out the window and fired wildly before speeding off.
A 120 mph chase ended on a deadend road at the edge of a field of grain as a family of seven huddled in a farmhouse basement nearby.
The officers closest to Minard pleaded with him to drop his weapon—their interactions were recorded by police, and the videos were later released to the Post.
“Why don’t you just show us your hands?” said Joseph Husnick, the officer who’d stopped Minard. “Then everybody will put their guns down. So far you’re lucky; nobody got hurt. Right?”
“You’ve got to think about your kids right now,” Lincoln County investigator Randy Ruleau added.
Instead, Minard paced outside his car, texting a friend goodbye. He told officers they’d have to kill him. As an armored vehicle approached, he raised his rifle. Husnick, Ruleau, and another officer opened fire. Tom Connelly also pulled his trigger. Minard fell to the dirt.
“Suicide by cop” is how his ex-wife, Tammy Minard, would later describe the shooting to the Post.
The standoff was the first time in more than a decade that an officer from Tom’s department had fired a weapon at a suspect. Tom had been a deputy for just six months.
“We’d call him a traffic Nazi; he loved to go out and do traffic stops,” said Tim Gensler, the cousin who inspired Tom to go into law enforcement.
From the start, his family said, that eagerness took a toll. A few weeks in, Tom was called to an accident in which a teacher had been struck by a truck while cycling to work. “He tried to resuscitate her, but she was already dead,” recalled his mother, Barb Connelly. It was one of the few times he discussed his job with her. “He said, ‘Mom, she did everything right. She
wore a helmet, she was riding safely, and she still got hit.’”
He soon saw other bodies, mostly car crashes and overdoses—so many that coworkers gave him a macabre moniker: Fatal Tom.
Tom was finishing up a 12-hour overnight shift when he heard Husnick call for backup and joined the chase of Minard.
Of the 26 rounds officers fired that morning, only one came from Tom. Even so, he was put on paid administrative leave as state investigators sifted through the evidence.
Tom seemed shaken when he told his girlfriend, Brittany Thrall, about the shooting. He began to cry before quickly burying his emotions.
“He didn’t bring it up again,” Thrall recalled. As the days of leave wore on, Tom’s mood darkened.
“It was a long time to have a potential homicide charge hanging over his head,” Gensler said. “He didn’t even know if he hit the guy.” He hadn’t, concluded state investigators, who ruled in October 2016 that the shooting was justified.
Tom returned to patrol after two months off. Almost immediately, he joined a search for a missing threeyear-old boy, who was found alive the next morning. The incident—and others involving children—weighed on him, said younger sister Laura Bailey, a nurse at a children’s hospital in Milwaukee.
Then on April 9, 2017, his beloved six-year-old cousin, Gracie, drowned during a birthday pool party.
“I never heard him cry,” his mother recalls. “But when I had to tell him about Gracie, he sobbed. He was absolutely devastated.”
Weeks after the little girl’s funeral, Tom was promoted to sergeant. But his relationship with his girlfriend was unraveling, partly, Thrall says, because his job had left him afraid to have kids.
In September, he surprised his superiors by giving up his sergeant’s rank to work during the day.
“He said he didn’t know if he could do this anymore,” recalls Sgt. Kevin Ison.
A few days later, Bailey was in town visiting their mother. She and Tom had made plans to have lunch, but when his sister texted him, he said he was busy.
Upset, Bailey invited him over for dinner. But Tom—who’d always dropped everything to see her— never came.
Instead, he began drinking. He and Thrall got into an argument. When she left, Tom went into his basement, where he kept his guns.
“They are scared of losing their guns if they speak openly about mental illness.”
AS SOON AS he picked up the phone, Dave Korus could tell that something was wrong. All George Connelly could do was sob. Tom, he said, had killed himself.
Police officers are adept at hiding the warning signs. “They are scared of losing their guns if they speak openly about their mental illness,” says the Ruderman Family Foundation’s Miriam Heyman, who has studied police suicides. “That fear is not unfounded.” As a result, many departments develop a culture of silence.
Barbara Connelly went through her son’s things. She found the black plaque praising his bravery during the deadly standoff. She discovered the bike he’d stopped riding after the teacher’s cycling accident and a photo of Tom holding Gracie as a toddler. When she searched his computer, she found a meme he’d saved of a squad car with an officer inside.
“Our job is keeping 99 percent of the population safe from the other 1 percent,” it said. “The problem is we have to spend half our lives with that 1 percent, and the better we do our job, the less the other 99 think they need us. The only ones paying attention on the streets are the cops and the criminals.” It was a side of her son she had never seen. After his funeral, an honor guard carried Tom’s ashes to the cemetery, where they were put atop a grave right next to Gracie’s. Then it was time for the last call.
“Langlade calling 444,” a dispatcher said. There was silence.
“Sgt. Thomas Connelly, you are now cleared to end tour,” she said. “May you rest in peace. We have the watch from here.”
How You Can Help
Consider becoming a certified Mental Health First Aid Responder. The eighthour class will teach you how to recognize and respond to the signs of mental illness. For more information, go to mentalhealthfirstaid.org. Washington Post (December 19, 2018), copyright © 2018 by the Washington Post, Washingtonpost.com.