Fmr. officer saved from suicide weighs in on proposed red flag bill

By  | 

HARTFORD, Wis. (WSAW) -- Thursday state lawmakers will go into the governor's requested special session to talk about gun violence measures, including the extreme risk protection order bill, commonly known as the red flag bill. Republican leaders, who are strongly against the measure, have said they only expect the session to last a few minutes.

One of the deadly problems the bill is aimed to help is getting guns out of the hands of suicidal people.

Chris Prochut knows what it is like to be in that position, saved from suicide. The mental health advocate and Kohl's corporate investigator once held a job where wearing a gun on his hip was required.

"From age 10 I knew I wanted to be a police officer," Prochut said. But he did not want to do that in just any department; he wanted to serve in the department from the town he grew up in, Bolingbrook Police Department in Illinois.

"At age 34, I was the youngest commander, which is third in charge of the police department," he explained.

Part of his duties was being the point person for the press and public information, a duty the community-policing minded officer often enjoyed. That is until one of his sergeants became the main suspect in the sergeant's fourth wife's disappearance in 2007. The case attracted national news outlets and Prochut was charged with managing them.

"That just became my life. I had to fix this problem and the problem was how people looked at our department," Prochut said. "I felt that it was my job to change kind of public's perception."

"When I couldn't, you know, I fell into a depression," he continued. "I would be charged up at work, and depressed at home and unfortunately, I put that every time I go home, I get angry. It must be the kids or it must be Jenny, so avoid them at all costs. Try to sleep, which I couldn't do, or just work an awful lot of hours."

That depression lasted for months. His wife Jenny Prochut eventually convinced him to to see a counselor. It was his birthday gift to her.

"'You can't help me because you're not a police officer. You don't know what we've seen,'" Chris Prochut recalled saying to the counselor. "I let him basically have it."

"He finally said, 'Chris, I don't know why you're so angry and I just want to help you.' And I remember going 'this guy's good' because I let all of that out. So, talking actually did help," he said.

Eventually, he was also put on medication. "He explained it like this: 'It's not a character flaw. It's a chemical imbalance in the brain and you take medicine, it balances out the chemicals, and you feel better. So I did," he said. "I felt better until my birthday in April. Flushed my meds down the toilet."

Later that month, Prochut came up with a plan to end his pain by ending his life. His death date was scheduled for May 1, 2008, but Jenny picked up on some of his warning signs.

"I think she put everything together over the last couple months and she said, 'If you kill yourself, I'm going to kill myself too and then who's going to take care of the kids?' And I said, 'I already thought about that in the will,'" Chris said.

"But we never had an official, notarized document or anything and I'm like, 'What will? So this is for real,'" Jenny asked him. "And that's when I was like, Okay. But he said, 'but if white coats come to the door, I know what to do to get myself taken care of.' So now he's challenging me, like, 'don't you do anything.'"

While Chris was sleeping that night, which they both say was a miracle in itself that he was able to sleep at this very moment, Jenny, their two young children, and the dog snuck out of the house to report Chris' crisis to the very department he worked for.

"I'm not exactly sure what told me to hide the gun, I certainly wasn't bringing it with with my two kids and the dog," she said. "That was terrifying to do, but the easiest way to get him safe."

Terrifying in part because they both knew Illinois law at the time said getting help, specifically, going to a mental hospital, meant he would lose his gun. Not only that, despite being cleared by psychologists to go back to duty after his treatment, he was not allowed to go back to work as a sworn officer.

Wisconsin gun laws are not the same. The Department of Justice communications director told NewsChannel 7 if an officer goes to a mental hospital for treatment, they should not expect to lose their job and red flag laws would not change that.

"Red flag laws can certainly help to save lives. It might not be an end all be all, but if you take it from Jenny, the first thing that she did to make sure I was safe this time, again, was to take that gun," Chris said. "This empowers her or family members or law enforcement to protect them ahead of a crisis."

According to BLUE H.E.L.P., an organization that tracks officer suicides, twice as many officers have died by suicide than in the line of duty this year in the U.S., 192 to 102.

Chris, who has shared his story with about 10,000 law enforcement officers around the country and Canada and who also is part of an organization that tracks officer suicides, said Wisconsin sees about two to three officer suicides annually.

"When I do these presentations, I meet officers and they say, 'Chris, I know what the barrel of my gun tastes like. I went and got help. I was supported by my police department and here's my lieutenants bars, it didn't affect my career at all.'"

That is why he recommends that lawmakers in Wisconsin spell out exactly what happens after someone's guns are taken away, and what to do after they get better.

"How do they get their their gun back along with you know, their job in light duty and things like that? Because I think if we don't address that, there's going to be this myth that as soon as I get my gun taken away, my my career's over and I'm going to hide needing help," he urged.

He has seen it happen. The officer who wrote his crisis report took his own life a few years later.

"The job is just a job," Jenny said. "The person comes first."

Rep. Melissa Sargent, one of the authors of the bill, said in a statement, This legislation has been drafted with the thoughts and concerns of actors across our state, including law enforcement. For many law enforcement officers, an Extreme Risk Protection Order process in our state means another tool for them to be able to help our communities and prevent tragedies—including the loss of fellow law enforcement officers by suicide. I take very seriously the impacts that this bill will have on Wisconsin, and am confident that we truly have an opportunity here to save many lives of our families, friends, neighbors, and even potentially those first responders who work to keep us safe.

The Prochuts urge everyone to keep up with their own mental health, and if you are in need of help, get it early and get it often, before there is a crisis.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will help get you local resources and a live person to talk to at any time of the day. That number is 1-800-273-8255.