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Miami’s top cop shot himself. Mental health remains an issue for first responders

A Newark police officer holds the hat of Newark Police Detective Michael Morgan during his funeral procession at Saint Lucy’s Roman Catholic Church in Newark, N.J. Saturday, Nov.  12, 2011.
Rich Schultz
/
AP
A Newark police officer holds the hat of Newark Police Detective Michael Morgan during his funeral procession at Saint Lucy’s Roman Catholic Church in Newark, N.J. Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.

Last year, 64 police officers were fatally shot in the line of duty. There were 160 who took their own lives.

The biggest threat to law enforcement officers — and often, their families — is not any armed criminal. It is themselves.

Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez now stands as a tragic example of where mental health and policing intersect. He remains at Tampa General Hospital after shooting himself in the head Sunday night with his service revolver. Before he shot himself, he had his hands around his wife’s throat, media reports say.

“This incident is also a tragic reminder of the critical role that mental health plays in our law enforcement officers’ well-being,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava at a news conference on Wednesday.

“The reality is that these jobs are very demanding. They’re stressful and they’re emotionally taxing. They often require officers to put their lives on the line.”

Ramirez had called Levine Cava, distressed, and offered to resign around 8:30 p.m. Sunday. There had been an incident at the Marriott Tampa Water Street.

Ramirez was seen with his hands on his wife’s throat, the Miami Herald reported. Somebody called the police because they heard he had put his gun in his mouth. And then he and his wife were asked to leave the hotel for causing a disturbance.

After speaking with Levine Cava around 8:30 p.m., Ramirez shot himself in the head, the bullet reportedly exiting his eye.

READ MORE: Levine Cava: Miami-Dade police chief was 'remorseful' before shooting

Law enforcement officers have a 54 percent increase in suicide riskcompared to the general public, according to a 2019 study.

“Before COVID, suicide was the number one cause of death of in law enforcement,” said Steadman Stahl, president of South Florida Police Benevolent Association.

First-responders across the board are at risk — police officers, firefighters, EMTs, 911 operators. All must deal with tragedy on a routine basis. Shootings, horrific car accidents, drownings, drug overdoses, child abuse.

“How do you go out day in, and day out throughout your career, and experience these types of situations?” said Al Eskanazy, founding chairman and CEO of the Miami Beach-based Community Police Relations Foundation. “The emotional turmoil that has is incredible.”

Key Biscayne Fire Chief Eric Lang said there are “peer supporters” to address mental health in the department

“In the old days, you just kind of sucked it up and didn’t say anything, you carried it with you. Now we talk about it a little bit more, we have these resources available,” Lang said.

But sometimes those resources aren’t enough.

Ramirez’s predecessor — Robert Parker— killed himself in 2015 after he retired from the department, also shooting himself in the head.

Another top cop and former Mayor — Carlos Alvarez — was accused of domestic violence. But charges were droppedin 2016 when his ex-girlfriend, Evelyn Fernandez, a Miami-Dade police lieutenant, did not show up for trial.

Ramirez knew all the mental pitfalls the job entailed. “You can take the uniform but the experiences that you go through stay with you,” Ramirez told Miami television station WPLG in December 2021

Ramirez said he would compartmentalize his stress and would never ask for help. He made it a priority to provide counseling for his officers and Miami-Dade police has a robust mental health unit, Eskanazy and Stahl said.

But as director, Ramirez faced a whole new kind of stress. He was named by Levine Cava to lead the department in 2020. She then named him in 2022 to oversee the fire-rescue department.

He shepherded the department during the height of the COVID pandemic.

He managed the department during the fallout and nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd. Then, the Surfside condominium Champlain Towers South collapsed, killing 98.

“The guy never really caught a break on anything,” Stahl said.

“Freddy is the type of leader, the type of man, who bears the burdens of those around him,” Levine Cava said. “He carries the weight of his department.”

Everything just unraveled for Ramirez while attending the Sheriffs conference. Tampa police around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday arrived after reports of threatening to harm himself with a gun.

Ramirez denied he put his gun to his head and told officers he was just arguing with his wife. But the couple had caused so much of a disturbance that the Marriott hotel asked them to leave.

That put Ramirez and his wife of 28 years, Jody, on Interstate 75 back home to Miami. There was a call to the mayor – and then tragedy.

Ramirez wasn’t known as one of these tough-as-nails irascible lawmen. He was affable. He played guitar. And — like in the WPLG interview — very open to talk about hard issues.

Ramirez appeared on the Independent’s Anti-Social podcast in May.

When Eskanazy first heard bits and pieces of what happened, he thought it was a joke — but then learned the horrifying truth.

“I just started crying,” he said. “I’m a pretty tough guy — born and raised in the streets of the Bronx. This just broke me.”

Stahl said he remains bewildered. He considers Ramirez a friend. “We would never have expected that, ” he said.

Lang added, “He was just like this random normal guy that people connected with. He needed help. He couldn’t get help. Everybody’s really moved by this.”

There are organizations to help for both officers and family members of cops who are subjected to the stress.

The Atlantic magazine reported research suggesting domestic violence is two to four times higher in the law-enforcement community than in the general population.

Blue H.E.L.P., formed in 2015, keeps track of suicides and offers resources.

Eskanazy’s non-profit aims to bring law enforcement and distressed communities together.

“You can either allow that circumstance to deteriorate, or you can use it as an opportunity to understand it and grow from it,” he said.

The program is called Struggle Well.

Stahl said it is important to change the stoic mindset of officers “that it is OK not to be OK. It’s OK to ask for help.” Still, there are concerns that by reaching for help it could be used against them by the media or as they try to move up in rank.

“We are changing that mindset,” Stahl said.

Stahl was traveling back Tuesday from Tampa where he visited with the Ramirez family.

“They’re sticking together. They’re strong,” he said. “They just want to get the director home. There is great love among the family.”

If you or someone you know experiences a mental health emergency, help is available by calling or texting 988, the suicide and crisis lifeline. This story was originally published in the Key Biscayne Independent, a WLRN News partner.

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

John Pacenti | Key Biscayne Independent