An Ottawa police robbery detective who joined the service from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 2016 has been identified as the officer who died by suicide inside police headquarters on what was already an emotional weekend for city cops and their families.
Det. Thomas Roberts, 35, shot himself Friday evening.
Interim Chief Steve Bell said police found him “following an incident where we were made aware that he was in crisis.”
Roberts had been shown up to work, officers said, and had been in communication with his wife. She then called police with concerns about her husband. Police began searching the building for him and found him inside the robbery squad’s office, where he had already shot himself.
He is survived by his wife and a nine-month-old baby. His family has asked for privacy while they grieve.
“It's a tough day for us, it's a tough day for his family, it's a tough day for this community,” Bell said.
Officers who worked with Roberts described his zeal for policing. He had only been an Ottawa police officer since 2016, when he was hired as a direct entry constable after working for the RCMP in Western Canada. In that short time, he had already received a chief's commendation for being part of a group of officers who rushed into a burning building to rescue a man in 2018 and was impressing robbery unit colleagues with his investigative skills.
His colleagues described him as an “amazing, energetic, charismatic officer who repeatedly would go above and beyond to help anyone in this community,” Bell said.
“That description makes this even more tragic and difficult for people to understand and understand.”
Bell said the service had done work to support officers and their families and had created mental health programs, but Roberts’s death was a reminder that more remained to be done.
“Tragedies like this show that we have more to do, we have more ground to cover. We have a better job, ”Bell said.
“We send our members out of a tough job every single day. They go out and do the hard work. They see tragic human suffering on a regular basis and that has a toll on them, so we have to make sure we remove the barriers that exist, like stigma, so that our members are ready, willing and able to actually access mental health supports that we know are needed in a really tough job like this. ”
Roberts’s death occurred one day shy of the fifth anniversary of the suicide of Staff Sgt. Kal Ghadban, a 22-year veteran officer who also took his own life at police headquarters.
Friday’s suicide at the Elgin Street police headquarters also came at the start of a weekend on which officers from across Canada gather on Parliament Hill to honor their fallen.
In 1998, the federal government proclaimed the last Sunday of September Police and Peace Officers' National Memorial Day, and in 2003 it mandated that flags on federal buildings, including the Peace Tower, would be flown at half-mast on that day.
The names of almost 900 peace officers are engraved on the Canadian Police and Peace Officers Memorial on Parliament Hill.
"Memorial weekend" is meant to celebrate the "people who have gone before us and sacrificed their lives," Bell said. Officers typically gather at the police association building on Catherine Street on Saturday night and March on Parliament Hill in their dress uniforms with representatives from police services from across the country on Sunday morning. That two Ottawa officers in five years have taken their lives on this particular weekend raises questions, but they can't yet be answered, Bell said.
“What we do know is that there was a suicide five years ago that got us to take steps in the right direction to make sure we have mental health supports and today we have another tragic suicide in our own family and we know we have more work I do. ”
Police will review their mental health policies and programs, but Bell says paramount to preventing having officers in crisis is making sure anyone in need knows what programs are available and feels comfortable accessing them.
In a series of emails to officers following Roberts’s death, Bell encouraged officers to take care of one another and to use the programs in place.
Those include a peer support group made up of officers listening to other officers, the critical incident stress management team that debriefs officers after major events, the employee and family assistance program and both police associations.
In an email to fellow officers sent Friday night after Roberts’s death, Ottawa Police Association president Matt Skof told members he, too, was at a loss.
“When we experience difficult moments, a personal loss or tragic event, we are often left with an indelible memory of time and location. I remember exactly where I was, five years ago, almost to the day, when I learned of the loss of one of our members, ”Skof wrote.
“Tonight, we face the same challenge, we ask the same questions and struggle with the same confusion over the tragic loss of another member. We search our minds for signs that we often could not see; for words that we could not hear, we question whether there was something we could have done.
On Saturday, Skof said he also wanted to see how the programs in place for officers could be improved.
The Ottawa Police Service and the police association developed the peer support network of officers trained to respond to traumatic incidents, and support systems have evolved since 2012, when the Ontario ombudsman released In the Line of Duty, a report that probed persistent psychological difficulty including depression , anxiety, addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by OPP officers as the result of operational duties.
The ombudsman’s recommendations included consulting with experts to review best practices and enhancing and improving its employee assistance programs. The Ottawa police saw the recommendations as a platform on which to build, and it continues to evolve.
“We're always looking to see how it could be improved,” Skof said. “We have to take that responsibility very seriously.”
Ontario's chief coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer, announced earlier this year the launch of a review of police suicides in the province after eight active officers and one recently retired officer died by suicide in 2018. His office told Postmedia on Saturday that the report should be released in early October.
Huyer noted that no more than five officers had taken their own lives in any of the previous five years
Ottawa police will continue to probe the circumstances of Roberts’s suicide. The service did notify the Special Investigations Unit about the shooting. The provincial police watchdog opted not to invoke its mandate to investigate any incidents of serious injury or death involving police officers.
The SIU investigated Ghadban's suicide in 2014 because Ottawa police tactical officers were searching for him and were about to approach his office when they heard the gunshot that ended his life. Roberts was already dead when police found him Friday and no police officer interacted with him in the moments before the shooting.
With files from Joanne Laucius and Luke Carroll
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