PORT RICHEY — The first threat came just before sundown April 1. Police Officers Donald Velsor and Justin Lee were investigating a disorderly suspect at the Walmart on Ridge Road when Sgt. Robert Kern, their supervisor, arrived to check on the patrol.
Kern was angry, Velsor said. He talked of problems with the police and his personal life. "I'm just going to go home and kill myself," he told Velsor. "I'm going to shoot myself in the head."
Velsor told Kern not to joke like that.
"I'm serious. I'm not joking," Kern said. "I'll just end it."
Alerted to Kern's threat, Lt. Donald Young and Chief Dave Brown asked Velsor to assess whether his boss should be taken into custody for a mental health evaluation under the state's Baker Act. Kern told Velsor he was just venting. Velsor and Brown agreed to move on.
Yet eight days later, while working at police headquarters, Kern's anger reignited, according to documents obtained by the Pasco Times. Frustrated with a 911 caller reporting a theft, Kern barked questions at dispatcher Daniel Nocera and stormed out of the communication center, a co-worker's memo said.
"I swear to f---ing God I'm going to shoot myself in the head," Kern shouted, according to documents. "I'm serious. I'm going to f---ing shoot myself."
Kern's suicide threats, described in three memos from Velsor, Lee and Nocera, were relayed to police brass over the last three weeks. The officers wrote that Kern seemed very "frustrated," that the threats were "very serious," that they feared "for the safety of Sgt. Kern's life."
Yet with the chief's approval, Kern continues to work the streets as the department's third in command. His duty and authority over officers has not changed. He still carries his service pistol.
"Sgt. Kern is one of our officers. He is working for us in a full-service capacity," Brown said. "I've spoken to Sgt. Kern. He has my trust."
Messages left for Kern were not returned.
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Kern, 46, was hired onto the Port Richey force as a full-time patrol officer in 1986. He was promoted to corporal five years later and, within the year, demoted for neglecting duty. Over the next two decades he would rise to the rank of the city's sole sergeant, directly supervising eight of the department's 12 full-time officers.
Yet his 24 years on the force have not been without trouble. He has been reprimanded for causing traffic crashes, wrongly releasing a prisoner and failing to respond to calls. Last month he was ordered to take a one-day unpaid suspension and three months of probation for "repeated incidents of carelessness" at the scene of a burglary. He was also ordered last month to receive the same punishment after he and two of his officers inflicted three Taser shocks on a man they mistook as a fugitive.
Though Kern has been disciplined at least 31 times, earning at least 24 days and four hours of unpaid suspension, little has been done to change Kern's duty. In fact, Kern's timesheets from the last month show he worked and was paid for both days he was to be suspended.
On both days, April 1 and April 17, he worked 10-hour night shifts from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. His first suicide threat came during that first shift.
Messages left for Brown seeking an explanation were not returned Friday.
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Suicides among law enforcement officers are not without precedent. A Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy shot himself two years ago in his Tampa condo. Earlier this month a Florida Highway Patrol trooper shot his wife and then himself in Floral City, telling a 911 dispatcher, "I've been depressed, and I can't take it anymore."
To combat the high stress of law enforcement work, many Tampa Bay agencies take part in "employee assistance programs" that offer free therapy and support. At the Clearwater Police Department, officers can ask to meet confidentially with a sworn suicide prevention coordinator. At the Tampa Police Department, psychologists, chaplains and grief counselors are provided as part of employees' benefit packages.
Port Richey officials won't say whether Kern was offered mental health or suicide counseling, citing a records exemption for personal medical information. Brown declined to say whether the city provides a similar assistance program.
Though each suicide threat is considered case by case, local police psychologists said that choosing to keep a threatening officer armed and on regular duty allows the potential for disaster.
"In my practice, if I ever hear anybody threaten to kill themselves, I take that seriously. Those are magical words," said Dr. Vincent Skotko, a police psychologist who evaluates officers before hiring and after traumatic events at about 40 law enforcement agencies statewide. "The department will ask for officers to voluntarily give their weapons to a friend … and I would virtually always recommend light duty."
Suicidal officers in most agencies are allowed time to talk with psychologists screening for the best form of treatment, most often away from police leaders who could skew the counseling, said Dr. Robert Dies, a psychologist who works on a contract basis for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and New Port Richey and Port Richey police departments.
Depending on interviews, officers can be asked to temporarily give up their weapon, work a desk or records job, begin treatment with antidepressants or, in extreme cases, be taken into custody under the Baker Act.
"Even in the best of circumstances," Skotko said, treatment and close monitoring should last at least 30 days.
New Port Richey police Chief Martin Rickus said there's no difference in the way officers are trained to work with suicidal residents or colleagues.
"If it's serious enough," Rickus said, "I can assure you we'll be taking back our service revolver, putting them on an administrative time-out, pulling their powers of arrest and carrying a firearm — all the while helping them get the help they need."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.