The Anaheim Police dispatcher answered the call like he did every other: by pushing a button that played a pre-recorded message of his voice:
It was 5:50 p.m. on Oct. 31, 2013.
The graveyard shift was coming on to relieve the dayshift team a few minutes early on Halloween.
Day-shift dispatcher Ryan Dedmon decided to answer one last call.
“My daughter just shot herself,” an elderly man told him.
In his nearly nine years as a police dispatcher, Dedmon had heard it all:
Shootings. Stabbings. Rapes. Robberies. Assaults.
The suicide call that night hadn’t even been Dedmon’s first.
But it would end up being the last call he ever answered as an Anaheim Police dispatcher.
What had once been routine suddenly wasn’t anymore.
On a recent afternoon in a room at the Fullerton Community Center, police officers from several Orange County agencies, as well as representatives from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Probation Department, sat around four tables arranged in a rectangle.
Heather Williams, regional peer support coordinator for the OCSD, went over some business for attendees at the Orange County Association of Peer Supporters meeting before introducing the guest speaker:
In Orange County law enforcement, the concept of peer support is gaining traction.
In January, the Fullerton PD became the latest police agency to form a team of sworn employees and professional staff who are dedicated to listening and helping colleagues in need and, if necessary, referring them to professional counselors.
The Tustin PD has a model peer-support program and now most law enforcement agencies in O.C. have one, including the Santa Ana, Garden Grove, Buena Park, Fullerton, Irvine, Brea, Westminster and Anaheim PDs, as well as the OCSD.
The concept is simple: Cops, dispatchers and other professional staff may feel more comfortable talking to one of their own in a low-key and confidential setting before turning to an outside professional or an Employee Assistance Program for such issues as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
“Ultimately, peer support gives personnel working in law enforcement permission to be human underneath that strong and stoic persona,” said Williams, former program director and crisis response team coordinator for CSP Victim Assistance Programs whose position at the OCSD was created last August.
“Law enforcement personnel will have normal acute stress reactions to things they experience on the job, and talking about it with a member of peer support is one way to help mitigate the long-term psychological and physical consequences of trauma exposure,” Williams said.
“Our warriors help fix, take control and save lives,” she added. “They aren’t used to not having the resources to fix or take control of their own lives.”
On Halloween night 2013, Dedmon’s life began to spin out of control.
Flash back to Spring 2002, when Dedmon was a student at Biola University who needed an internship to graduate.
Growing up watching police procedurals on TV, Dedmon always wanted to work in law enforcement.
In 2002 he landed an internship on the APD’s gang unit and became hooked.
An officer named Kathy Johnson, a vibrant and athletic cop in her early 30s, performed his background check.
Dedmon, a competitive runner in college, hit it off with her. The two became fast friends, with Johnson serving as his career mentor.
After the internship, Dedmon was hired as a cadet. Two years later he was promoted to dispatcher.
After serving a very short stint as a police officer in Tustin (“I didn’t feel the work was cut out for me,” Dedmon says), he returned to the APD as a dispatcher in February 2006.
During the few months he was away, Johnson had learned she had late-stage cancer.
Her physical condition had dramatically worsened. She was a shell of herself.
Assigned to light duty as a dispatcher, Johnson worked side by side with Dedmon — until the day in June 2006 when he got the worst phone call of his life.
Dedmon was scheduled to work the graveyard shift that night when his supervisor called him in the afternoon with some news:
Kathy Johnson committed suicide.
Left a note on her front door.
Before killing herself, Johnson called 911 and immediately hung up, knowing that first responders would be dispatched to her home in south Orange County.
Dedmon was devastated.
But with no peer support program in place yet at the APD, he did what many of his colleagues did: went back to work, keeping whatever thoughts he had about his dear friend’s suicide to himself.
Work served as the ideal distraction. Dedmon worked so hard that in 2012 an organization named him Telecommunicator of the Year for Southern California.
“Little did I know my heart and my mind and spirit were just a slumbering volcano ready to erupt under the right circumstances,” Dedmon said.
Those “right circumstances” would come in 2013.
In early spring that year, Dedmon received a 911 call.
“I need the Anaheim Police Department,” the man said.
“This is the Anaheim Police Department. Where are you?”
“I’m at a business at…in Anaheim.”
“What is your emergency?”
“I’m really sorry I had to call you and involve you in this. I have a handgun and I am going to shoot myself. I will be dead by the time police get here. You will find me outside in the rear parking lot. My name is Bob…There’s a note I have written in my back pocket. The note has contact information for my family. I am so sorry. Goodbye.”
Bob was Dedmon’s first gunshot suicide.
The call hit him hard. He had elaborately planned out his suicide, just like his dear friend and colleague Kathy Johnson had.
Dedmon didn’t tell anyone at work about the disturbing call. But he knew he was struggling.
“I felt like I was dog-paddling in the middle of the ocean,” Dedmon said.
And then came the call on Halloween 2013.
“My daughter just shot herself.”
Dedmon briefly paused as he felt the mental and emotional barriers he had worked so hard to erect the last few months since Bob’s death start to crumble.
“Where is your daughter?”
“She’s on the bed in the bedroom.”
“Where is the gun?”
“It’s on the bed next to her.”
“Ok, pick the gun up for me and move it away from her and put it somewhere safe. Is it just you and your daughter inside your home now?”
“Yes. I left the house about 10 minutes ago because she asked me to pick up a couple of items from the liquor store just down the block. When I came back home, I set the items on the kitchen counter and saw a handwritten letter that was not there when I left. I started reading it and it was from my daughter, and I… I… I went into the bedroom and found her.”
“How old is your daughter?”
“She’s 51. She’s been struggling with severe depression for a long time.”
“Is your daughter conscious now? Is she awake?”
“Is she breathing?”
“She’s trying to.”
After the woman’s father put the receiver down on the bed so he could go outside to meet arriving officers, Dedmon heard her gurgling and struggling to breathe.
He listened to her dying gasps on an open phone line for about a minute before hanging up.
Three weeks later, after little or no sleep or food but copious amounts of whiskey and running, Dedmon resigned from the Anaheim PD.
By then, the agency had a peer support program in place. Two APD employees, Officers Sarah Shirvany and Flora Palma, reached out to him. Dedmon also had met Williams before he quit.
“For them to show they cared gave me a lot of hope that I could be healthy again,” Dedmon recalled. “I was totally exhausted and depleted. My life serves as example that peer support in public-safety agencies is not only needed, but it works.”
He credits Shirvany, Palma and Williams for rescuing him from a path of self-destruction.
“They saved my life,” Dedmon said. “I am forever in their debt.”
Dedmon’s APD colleagues were shocked that he resigned; he had been the hardworking dispatcher who could handle anything thrown his way.
Or so it seemed.
In reality, Dedmon had acute stress disorder and PTSD, according to counselors he saw for about a year. Therapy, including a technique that helps a person reprocess his or feelings about a traumatic incident, worked wonders and today Dedmon, now 34, is healthy.
“At some point you have to open the closet to deal with the years and years of stuff you’ve been piling away in it,” Dedmon said of therapy. “At some point you have to clean your closet.”
Dedmon advocates a healthy balance between work and personal life for anyone and particularly for first responders such as police officers, dispatchers and firefighters.
To that end, he founded a blog, Operation 10-8 (operationt8.com), that honors first responders through recognition and education. Dedmon also volunteers for Project 999 as well as for the 911 Wellness Foundation. In addition, he’s an adjunct instructor for Golden West College’s Criminal Justice Training Center.
Dedmon, who lives in Santa Ana, currently makes ends meet driving limos. But he’s itching to get back into the work he loves — police dispatching. Dedmon knows he’s much better equipped this time to cope with the stresses of the job. And he gives a lot of credit to peer support programs such as the one at the Anaheim PD.
“It’s imperative that (police officers and other first responders) understand that asking for help takes an enormous amount of strength and should no longer be looked at as failure or weakness,” Williams said.
As Dedmon put it:
“It’s OK to work in this profession and hurt. It doesn’t mean you’re any less of a warrior.”