Sheriff explains trend in violence and law enforcement suicide

Jessica Robinson

With the change of times that have included a pandemic and people moving to Wyoming, the BHC Sheriff’s office is starting to see a change in the encounters they are called to.

BHC Sheriff Ken Blackburn said in the last two years, especially during the pandemic, their encounters with citizens have become increasingly more violent.

It’s not the general public that Blackburn is referring to though. “The local residents of Big Horn County are wonderful as always,” he said.

Blackburn noted on a combination of people being stressed and an influx of people that are moving in from out of the area that react in different ways. They also have seen an increase throughout Wyoming of drugs moving into the area again.

“They are coming to the good of the Bighorn Basin, but they are unfortunately bringing a lot of the problems of the world with them.”

When he refers to violent encounters, he doesn’t mean shootings per say. While he didn’t have specific numbers on use of force incidents, he said they have had more incidences of hands on required controlling situations to gain compliance.

Blackburn and the deputies at the sheriff’s office have always prided on being able to gain compliance with what they need to do through verbal de-escalation. “We really try to work on that,” he said “but we are seeing that starting to be not as effective.”

He pointed to one encounter on the north end of the county in the spring where a fatality was involved. The subject threatened the officers involved with a knife. He said their officers practiced great restraint, adding it took multiple officers to care for that individual because of their impaired level.

The sheriff specified that while all suicides are violent, they have seen an increase in suicides by violent means than normal.

Blackburn asserted they have certainly seen an increase in assaults against people. He added this is carried over to law enforcement having to control those situations to make everyone safe, especially the victims.

As for domestic violence, Blackburn remarked they have seen internal stress amongst families in general at an all time high.

How this has affected his staff, Blackburn responded everybody is tired of this. As with restaurants and other businesses, the sheriff’s office is working short on staff.

“People are expecting more. They certainly have a right to expect all of that, but we only got so many people and so many hours in the day,” he said.

While they could use more staff, Blackburn is not sure they could get more hired right now. “We are just like every other sign you see in every other business, but we can’t shut our doors or change our business hours,” he stated.

Blackburn commented it’s not an excuse. He continued that healthcare workers, fire fighters, emergency service workers and law enforcement are feeling the drain.

Law enforcement suicide

On Sept. 27, Lieutenant Daniel ‘Danny’ Dundas of the Casper Police Department committed suicide. Dundas’ family along with Casper PD and the community were left grieving.

“The struggle for law enforcement officers and healthcare workers is real,” said Blackburn.

He said people think in this area there is no stress, adding that it’s more so in this area because the people they deal with are children they’ve known, people they’ve grown up with or people who have been their mentors.

“When you roll up on those scenes, and we have had many this summer, we’re one of those categories of people that suffer tragically. It eats at the core of your soul and don’t think it doesn’t.”

As the body counts increase, Blackburn said it gnaws away at the well being of every officer.

“Let’s face it right now, in the nation, cops are not viewed as the good guys,” he said. “Yet, we are still being asked to do the right thing for the right reasons with most everybody hating us.”

Blackburn acknowledges there are bad cops out there, but like everything that is generally the exception of the rule. “Throughout every agency in this county (municipal, county, state, or federal), the men and women I work with are generally exceptional individuals that are trying to do the right thing for the right reasons,” he commented.

“We sometimes have to make difficult calls and we may not get it right,” he continued.

Blackburn explained that it’s easy for someone to go to the official’s instant replay booth, watch the play twenty times and decide what wasn’t done right. “We don’t have the luxury of an instant replay booth on some of the decisions we have to make,” he said.

“That’s not to say we get it wrong all the time,” he continued. “In fact, we get it right most of the time.”

Blackburn said people are going to judge them with the 20/20 hindsight. “Most of them are not there in the middle of the night, in the bad weather, the tough situations, and the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth,” he added

The sheriff refers to the song “The Weight of the Badge” by George Strait, saying anyone who has ever put a badge on for the right reasons will understand the song.

“This summer alone, my staff and I have grieved for people that have died from accidents, drowning, various tragic losses, and suicides,” he said.

He emphasized that because they do it all the time doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect them.

“We really try hard to watch our guys and gals to see if any of them are becoming unwound,” he said “but this is such a silent killer, it’s hard to know.”

He said we thank our veterans, healthcare workers, and firefighters. With October being fire prevention month, he is thankful for firefighters.

“Sometimes we take all of these disciplines, including police officers for granted,” he said. “For those who have thanked me for doing my job, it means so much it about brings me to tears when they do that.”