KANSAS CITY, Mo. — David Colegrove seemed ready to have a happy and fulfilling retirement. After eight years as a St. Louis area police officer and another 22 years as a federal agent in Kansas City, Colegrove had set up his own business. But a few months after retiring as a law enforcement officer in September 2014, he took his own life.
"I think he carried a tremendous amount of stress and trauma that went unprocessed," Kim Colegrove, David’s widow, said. "I definitely believe that the eight years in a patrol car did more damage than anything else in his life."
Specifically, Kim Colegrove said her husband, as a young officer, was involved in a shootout.
"I know for sure that shootout when my husband was 21 years old was something that he never processed, he never worked through, and he never dealt with," she said, "and it was something that weighed very, very heavily on his mind and on his heart. David's been gone for six years and I just... it's still just unbelievable."
After her husband’s death, Kim Colegrove decided to act.
"I just wanted to do something to help," she said.
A meditation and mindfulness teacher in the corporate world, she brought that training to first responders.
In the past six years, she’s trained thousands of first responders in Missouri, Kansas and elsewhere with her Pause First Academy.
"We're focused on holistic wellness, work-life balance, resilience training and trauma recovery," Kim Colegrove said. “Police officers and other first responders like firefighters see and hear and endure severe trauma and experience the trauma of other people on a regular basis. In one day or one week, they'll encounter more than most of us will see in our lifetime."
Maj. Darren Ivey with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department agreed.
"It's a spiraling thing,," said Ivey, who also is a trainer at Pause First Academy. "That's why mental health is so important for not only police officers but all first responders."
Recently, Ivey was also KCPD’s contact person for the family of a police officer who took his own life.
"It's very devastating for all involved, especially the family," he said.
In 2019, nearly 240 police officers died by suicide across the country, according to the police mental health awareness group Blue Help.
“Those are the numbers we know about," Ivey said. "We know police suicide is not accurately reported. It's hopefully getting better, so it's probably even higher. It doesn't include our retirees who've gone through 30 years of the trauma and possibly not having what they may need, they may be victims of suicide also."
And for Kim Colegrove, it's gut-wrenching.
“It's awful, it's unbelievable. Nothing makes me more sad than to imagine a human being that is suffering to the extent that they think death by their own hand is the only relief," she said.
By contrast to the 239 reported suicides, 44 officers across the country died in the line of duty in 2019.
"We're killing ourselves at a rate of four to one. You tell me, are we doing a good enough job? I don't think so," said Ernie Stevens, a recently retired San Antonio, Texas, police officer.
Stevens is featured with his partner in a documentary called “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” currently streaming on HBO.
Stevens told the I-Team Joe was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD seven years after leaving the Marine Corps.
"I saw the change in him when he got his treatment," Stevens said. "He became a lot more patient."
Many veterans, according to Ivey, apply to become police officers when their military careers are over.
"It is often two different mentalities," he said. "One is a warrior mentality and one's a servant type of mentality, and you have to have good screening processes.".
As part of the hiring process, many law enforcement departments require a psychological exam for officer candidates.
"We look for any kind of difficulty that an individual might have in performing the duties of the position," said Dr. Bruce Cappo.
Cappo has been conducting those types of evaluations for more than 30 years for dozens of regional law enforcement agencies, including in both Kansas and Missouri.
"I would say that many working police officers, due to the nature of the work they do, may have some mild symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Cappo said.
However, Kim Colegrove said there’s still a stigma for police officers to ask for help dealing with the stress and trauma of the job.
"It's an entire culture of, 'Suck it up, buttercup,'" she said. "My husband was terrified that his employer would ever find out that he ever struggled with anxiety or depression, and he was never going to get the level of help that would've made a difference for him."
Ivey said departments are recognizing that, but there still is a "long way" to go.
"We need to add a lot more training – and mandatory training – from the minute we're hiring these kids and putting them through the academy to recognize the effects of trauma and stress," he said, "and more importantly, give them the tools on how to deal with them and let them know there is help available for them and it won't cost them their job."
"If you say to people, you're going to work 30 or 35 years in a highly stressful, highly traumatizing profession and then retire healthfully without dealing with your mental and emotional issues, it's probably not going to happen," Kim Colegrove said.
To address this issue, every police officer across the country should have an annual mental health evaluation, according to Stevens.
Ivey agreed, along with Kim Colegrove.
"I'm 100 percent on board," she said. "I think there should be a whole lot of mental health support in all these first responder agencies."
Kim’s goal is to cut into that first responder suicide rate as much as possible, so other families don’t have to endure the same pain as her family.
"This is a great movement and there won't be any backtracking," she said. "This movement has started in terms of being honest about facing mental health and it's really good news for everybody."
Kansas City Fraternal Order of Police President Brad Lemon said he’s currently working with state lawmakers on a plan for mental health evaluations for officers every three to five years.
He believes that time frame would be more cost effective and prevent too big a loss of man hours on the street for officers if it was done every year.