By St. John Barned-Smith Andrew Kragie and Marialuisa Rincon
A Houston police sergeant who shot and killed himself Friday morning in his west Houston patrol station was a "great guy, a great personality, a great human being," Chief Art Acevedo said.
The 21-year Houston Police Department veteran appears to have shot himself once in the head, Acevedo said, during a stoic press conference outside the Westside Patrol Station where the victim worked.
The sergeant, whom authorities had not publicly identified as of late Friday, was married and had two children, ages 10 and 12. A source who did not want to be identified said the sergeant was 44.
Police found the sergeant around 8:35 a.m. inside a stairwell on the station's fourth floor. No one heard the gunshot. The fourth floor had been used as a jail space but is now closed because of structural problems, Acevedo said.
Officers working in the station decided to search the facility after they discovered at 7 a.m. the sergeant had not reported for work.
The department will conduct a full "psychological autopsy," Acevedo said, as is standard practice after officer suicides.
The death is not the first to touch Westside Patrol in recent years.
Two years ago, 47-year-old Officer Richard Martin died after a man fleeing police rammed him as he lay a set of strip spikes on the road. Then, a week later, another Westside officer, Jason E. Angeli, 38, shot himself in his car.
Prior to those two deaths, the most recent known suicide by a Houston Police Department officer came in August 2014 when 21-year veteran Rudolph Farias III, under investigation in a ticket-rigging scam, fatally shot himself in a patrol car in a downtown police parking garage.
The death Friday shocked and saddened the victim's colleagues and the rest of the rank-and-file, said Joseph Gamaldi, vice president of the Houston Police Officers Union.
"Anytime anything like this happens, it's an absolute tragedy," he said. "It impacts all of us, whether we knew him or not, because we're all one big family."
More law enforcement officers die each year by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Risk factors for officers include "exposure to violence, suicide, or other job-related stressors; depression, anxiety, or other mental illness; substance abuse; domestic abuse; access to means to kill oneself (e.g., firearms); and poor physical health," according to research cited by the U.S. Department of Justice.
An expert who studies police suicide, John Volanti, found that officers actually have a slightly lower suicide rate than the general public (12 per 100,000 versus 13 per 100,000). He calculated that police have are 8 times more likely to die by suicide than homicide and 3 times more likely to die by suicide than by accidents. About 100-150 officers die by suicide each year, Volanti found.
Last year across the country, 108 police officers took their own lives, according to a study from the Badge of Life, a nonprofit aimed at reducing officer suicides and the impacts of stress and trauma on police officers and retired law enforcement.
The study's author, John Volanti, found that officers are eight times more likely to die by suicide than homicide and three times more likely to die by suicide than by accidents. Sergeants and higher-ranking officers accounted for 22 percent of law enforcement suicides, and 87 percent of suicide victims last year were males. Firearms were used in about 80 percent of the cases.
Research from the U.S. Department of Justice likewise has found that the daily risk and responsibilities of policing put officers at a heightened risk for suicide, due to risk factors like "exposure to violence, suicide, or other job-related stressors; depression, anxiety, or other mental illness; substance abuse; domestic abuse; access to means to kill oneself (e.g., firearms); and poor physical health."
At the Westside Patrol Station Friday, HPD psychological services and chaplain services were on site to counsel the victim's friends and other officers.
"Everybody could see those officers were visibly shaken," Executive Assistant Chief Troy Finner said.
Acevedo promised that the victim's family would not bear their grief alone.
"We can't explain these things," he said. "We ask that people please just pray for the family, pray for those young children."
Margaret Kadifa contributed to this report.
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