Van Beek: Acts of despair

When someone decides to take their own life, that trauma weighs heavily on those left behind. It is beyond heartbreaking for family and friends, yet it also has a profound impact on first responders who discover the tragedy. 

Attempts to resuscitate are filled with hope, as it becomes both a physical and emotional fight for life. If resuscitation efforts are unsuccessful, what goes through one’s mind is: I wish I would have known, followed by a feeling of helplessness and wondering, what could have been done differently? However, those who remain realize that the determination of the deceased far surpassed what anyone else could have done differently.

In law enforcement, we encounter a wide range of horrific circumstances, on a much more frequent basis than we care to recall, and it is always shocking and heartbreaking. We enter this profession with a higher calling to protect others. Without hesitation, we will risk our lives to save another.  When a life is lost, we find it difficult to accept. We relive the details over and over, trying for a different outcome, which of course, is not possible.  It’s a nightmare of which we are all familiar, but it only heightens our commitment to saving others.

There has been a rise in suicides across Eagle County, and we were shocked when two occurred in our jail this month. There are many factors to consider in running a detention facility.  There is a balance between measuring someone’s tendency towards self-harm and their right of privacy.  During incarceration, people still deserve respect.

There is a continual need to establish a balance between securing the jail from any implements which might be used for self-harm, and consideration that even while in detention, it is thoughtful to include such comforts as sheets and certain items of clothing to maintain a degree of normalcy, which is an important element in the rehabilitation process. As with many law enforcement agencies across the country, we are always seeking new approaches.

Support Local Journalism

According to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system, “One reason why jails have a higher suicide rate (46 per 100,000 in 2013) than prisons (15 per 100,000) is that people who enter a jail often face a first-time “shock of confinement”; they are stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy. Many commit suicide before they have been convicted at all.”

According to the Marshall Project, “Jails also have less information to work with when they try to assess new inmates for suicide risks.  ‘Prisons know who they’re getting’, said Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.” By the time someone arrives in prison, mental health issues, including suicidal tendencies, have had time to surface.

While there is some value in administering tests designed to detect depression and other issues, we must also face the fact that many who are intent on committing suicide have learned to hide their symptoms for fear of being stopped.

These initial strategies are further complicated by the large number of inmates who enter under the influence of narcotics and other substances, which naturally impact responses, compromising an accurate evaluation.  

When people are brought in to the Eagle County jail we have driver’s license information, prior arrest records, and limited details about any current alleged criminal violations. As a relatively small county, we sometimes have “common knowledge” about the physical or emotional state of certain members of our community. 

We always try to evaluate situations with discretionary good judgment, for the best outcome. For example, if we know that someone is diabetic and often runs low on insulin medication, which makes them incoherent and aggressive, we will adjust our response accordingly. However, foremost in our minds is the overall safety of our community.

We will continue to work with mental health professionals and law enforcement agencies in discovering new strategies in evaluating mental health conditions, even when no abnormalities are present. Our highest priority is to make sure everyone is safe while protecting their individual rights.

We strive to maintain a professional environment that is secure, and where detainees feel respected, as they work through the legal process. Our goal is to enable those who are in our custody to get their lives back on track and to learn new and better ways of responding to the stresses that landed them in jail.

Our greatest sympathies go to family, friends, and an entire community, who grieve this loss.  May the two who left this earth much too soon rest in peace.

James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at

Support Local Journalism