The Shrink Who Shrank Suicide Stigma
Riede (bottom row, far left) and his Psych staff in 1997
To make a bad situation even worse, HPD had the highest officer suicide rate in the nation. In 1977 and 1978 a total of six officers took their own lives – three per year on a force of about 3,000 certified personnel.
“That’s more than one officer per 1,000,” Dr Greg Riede recalled in a recent interview. “It was 10 times the national suicide rate.”
Then-Police Chief Harry Caldwell (1977-1980) recognized that the situation called for change. Chief Caldwell established the Psychological Services Unit, making HPD the fifth or sixth police department in the nation to set up a unit like this.
In the beginning there wasn’t much budget and Psychological Services was a one-man operation.
But what a man it was.
Caldwell followed the advice of then-Assistant Chief John Bales, who sought recommendations from the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University, and found that one name rose to the top – that of Dr. Greg Riede.
Riede, a criminal justice professor at Sam, also had been teaching at the Houston Police Academy, which was located at 61 Riesner at this time. He was well versed in suicide counseling, the treatment of depression and related mental conditions. And the fact was he also had a deep respect for the men and women in blue.
As the old saying goes, the one-man team hit the ground running, as Riede recently recalled.
He had been on the job two weeks when he got a call from a Houston area psychiatrist who said he was referring “a suicidal and homicidal officer” to the new man on the block, who regarded this situation as an emergency.
Riede set the tone for the 25 years he would spend as the head of psychological services.
“I got a call from the guy. He said he didn’t know what to do, that he could be arrested for what he just did. He said he couldn’t come in (to Riede’s office). I said, ‘I’ll meet you.’ I convinced him to call back and to come see me.
“We made special arrangements for the guy on the job. I saw him every day.”
With this professional help, this officer worked out his problems and spent another 20 years with the department before dying of a stroke.
Riede handled countless situations like this one during his impressive tenure of just more than 25 years. He believes the success started with some very understanding superiors, beginning with Bales, the man he credits with detailing the initial concept of the job. At first, Riede worked under Bales, who later served as acting chief.
Altogether, he served under nine acting and appointed chiefs of police. Dr. Riede quietly retired from HPD on April 30. But he is now back in a contractual capacity helping to screen applicants for the January police cadet class.
It can truly be said that the story of Greg Riede and Psychological Services is truly a success story. Hundreds of HPD officers would testify to the minute facets of that mighty tome.
What seems to have begun yesterday was more than a quarter of a century ago.
On Day One, Chief Caldwell said to Riede, “I don’t have a lot of instructions. I’m not a psychologist. We selected you for that job and from what I understand you’re one of the best.
“I won’t get in the way. If I can help you, let me know. You’re not the chief of police, so don’t try to run the department.”
Riede laughs at the latter comment, stating with absolute assurance that the last thing he ever wanted to do was “run the department.”
Chief Caldwell urged him to call him in situations he deemed to be emergencies. ”I called him a couple of times,” the HPD shrink said. “He always approved what I asked for.”
Suicide was a real problem in the beginning. Riede addressed it one counseling session at a time and soon led HPD on a record “winning streak” that would rival the Astros when they clinched the Wild Card in the National League this season.
The HPD suicide rate went down, down, down to zero and stayed at that number from the mid-1980s into the late 1990s. As the number of psychologists in Riede’s office increased over that period, their work drew international attention.
“There have been some suicides since then,” Riede said, “but it’s never gone back to the terrible rate that it was.”
Psychological Services was so successful in this area that a department in one Asian country even sought advice from HPD on how to deal with its own growing suicide rate.
The suicide problem in HPD mirrored what was happening in every other urban police department in America. Publicity on police suicide rates grew and the FBI set up a conference on the subject one year.
Ironically, the roster of police psychologists on the program included only those from departments with the highest suicide rates.
One might ask: Why wasn’t Greg Riede or one of his assistants in this group of experts? They could have outlined the methods they used to lower the HPD suicide rate.
Riede said the vast majority of psychological problems among today’s HPD officers are manifested in relationships.
“One of the psychological problems that raise the suicide rate, the depression rate and the divorce rate in police departments is the investigative mentality,” Dr. Riede said. “Officers are always looking for what’s wrong.”
Although this aim is helpful in police work, it’s very harmful when you take the same mindset home with you.
Counseling and classes on stress have had a calming effect on the department as a whole as it grew from the 3,000 number on Riede Day One to more than 5,000 officers today.
“I have taught officers in class to use their investigative skills to solve police problems,” Riede urged. “But notice what’s right with people you’re close to.”
He cited the example of married police officers with a son who was becoming suicidal. They didn’t know what to do. The doctor ascertained that both were “investigating” the kid and spent an inordinate amount of time criticizing him.
“Your kid is a good kid,” Riede told the parents in blue. “I think 80 percent of what he does is right but you only tell him about the 20 percent he does wrong.”
SOLUTION: “Look at everything about your kid, not just what’s wrong. For every one thing he does that is wrong, there are four ‘rights,’ a four-to-one ratio. You can still spend 15 minutes discussing one thing he’s doing wrong. But spend the next hour talking about four things he does right.”
The mother and daddy put the advice into practice and “the kid got fine.”
Officers discuss HPD’s “bad” divorce rate every day. Yet Riede said he has no accurate calculations and dares to say that there might be as many good marriages as bad ones.
Right up front he admitted that he and his staff spend their time helping solve problems “not to publish great studies.” He believes surveys of divorce among officers are too unscientific and far too susceptible to error.
“The statistics on the police divorce rate are so inconsistent,” Riede opined. “They are so poorly done. Police are not trained very well in getting these stats.
“It’s hard to tell what the divorce rate is. I doubt it’s higher than the military, where the stress level on marriage is higher. People who work shift work have a higher divorce rate. They have to work evenings, holidays and weekends.”
As for compiling an accurate police divorce rate, Riede is doubtful that has ever happened. Survey techniques are flawed. For example, one class might be asked, how many times have you been divorced?
Fifty class members might record more than 30 divorces, with the math revealing a 60 percent (3 in 5) rate when in actuality 15 people in the class may have been divorced twice with the remaining class members either single or happily married.
“They should ask, have you ever been divorced?” Riede suggested. “Otherwise, instead of apples and oranges you have a fruit basket.”
When Riede has gotten publicity, it’s been good publicity.
Two examples illustrate this point.
The first was the creation of HPD’s Crisis Intervention Team, which consists of patrol officers who attend 40 hours of classes to learn how best to deal with citizens with mental health problems.
This happened on Riede’s watch four years ago.
HPD’s CIT, under the direction of Frank Webb (“an energetic, creative man,” Riede said, “who has made a tremendous difference.”) has received national recognition for its contributions to improving treatment for people with mental illness.
Riede: “A couple of cities before us (set up CITs) but never on the level we did. Albuquerque has a program and a city in Tennessee, maybe Memphis, has one on a much smaller scale than ours. We have the largest program in the country. It involves one fourth of our patrol officers.
Psyching City Council
“Patrol has a response that’s almost a SWAT response. Patrol officers might ask, “Are you on medication?” We teach them about medications so they can be comforting to a person with serious mental illness. Instead of saying, ‘You’re crazy,’ they can say, ‘I’m taking you to the hospital to get your medication. Let’s talk to the doctor about it.’”
Riede said Houstonians with mental illness have gotten so accustomed to understanding and helpful police officers that many of them call and ask for a CIT officer to take them to the hospital instead of having their family members do it.”
There is another notable case of Riede turning a bad situation into a great “psychological” asset.
In the early 1980s, some minority City Council members heard a rumor that Psychological Services was turning down a higher number of black and Hispanic applicants than Anglos. They demanded the latest statistics and the reasons why this was happening.
Riede testified before a committee headed by then-Councilman Anthony Hall (city attorney under Mayor Lee Brown and now a high-ranking member of Mayor Bill White’s staff). His testimony turned things in the right direction.
“These are our stats,” the doctor told the council members. “I’ll tell you our rejection rate. We reject applicants at almost exactly the same rate across all ethnic and gender groups. We actually accepted Hispanics at a slightly higher rate than blacks and whites.
“But it was virtually the same across the board. ‘Why are we hearing complaints?’ the council members asked. Because rejected people don’t like to be rejected.”
The council members became more sympathetic pretty fast and wound up asking Riede what they could do to help his office.
More doctors, he replied.
As a result, the unit had five doctors by 1983. The staff grew over the years to seven psychologists and four clerical personnel.
“By the time I retired I had lost two (docs) the last two years,” Riede explained. “One left for more money and they laid off another one last summer. We were down to four plus the clerical staff and myself one year ago.”
Budget cuts have taken their toll. When Riede retired, his long-time administrative assistant Betty Menville and another veteran psychologist, Dr. Virginia Cummins, both retired.
Today there are two remaining psychologists – Drs. David Bissett and Verdi Letherman – and secretaries.
A tight budget also impacted relocation of Psychological Services. It started out at 61 Riesner but was moved to the Heights so officers would not have to walk through working divisions on their way to counseling.
Because of the need to save lease monies in order to pay for the 1200 Travis facility, the office was moved to those premises for four years until it was returned to one of its former locations – 12707 North Freeway, about 10 minutes from the police academy.
“This is a convenient location since most officers live on the north side,” the now-retired Riede pointed out.
He decided to go quietly without a big party with assorted cakes and related hoopla. He received calls from countless officers who thanked him for his counseling and for actually helping them get their jobs since he participated in the screening of about 3,000 people who eventually were chosen to be HPD officers.
“It’s been very flattering,” Riede said. “A lot of people called me and said, ‘We think of you as part of the police department. In 25 years Brad (Police Chief C. O. Bradford) was the guy I taught as a cadet who became police chief.
“I’ve received some very complimentary calls and notes from officers who told me I saved their lives.”
All things considered, Greg Riede has been “a good hire.”
He has been on call 24-seven over all those years and, yes, never took one sick day.
“This is my life’s work, I guess,” he said.