A Pasco sheriff's deputy and mother of three has died by suicide, said Sheriff Chris Nocco.
Deputy April Rodriguez, 43, was found Sunday morning. She is the latest in what Nocco called an epidemic of law enforcement suicides.
Rodriguez didn't show up for work that morning, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said. Deputies attempted to contact her, then went to her apartment, where her coworkers found her.
"She was a good person, with a great heart, and loved her children very much," Nocco said.
She was the third first-responder in the Tampa Bay region to die by suicide in the past two months. A Pinellas County sheriff's deputy and a St. Petersburg Fire Rescue firefighter both killed themselves in December.
IF YOU NEED HELP: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please get help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
The sheriff said Rodriguez left behind a husband and three children. The family includes a grown daughter serving in the military and a younger son and daughter, according to a post on her Twitter in May:
"These are the 3 beautiful kids that call me #MOM. I could not be more #proud to be their mom ..."
In 2018, Rodriguez tweeted that she was now a grandmother.
The deputy joined the agency after graduating from Pasco-Hernando State College's Law Enforcement Academy in June 2015. She spent four years with the Sheriff's Office. She was a patrol deputy assigned to New Port Richey and areas south and east to U.S. 41.
There have been 37 law enforcement officers who have died by suicide so far in 2019, according to the nonprofit Blue H.E.L.P., which was started in 2015 to collect data and offer resources and help to officers and their families. It reported 160 deaths in 2018 and 159 in 2017.
Law enforcement is a stressful and challenging occupation, said Jacksonville Sheriff's Office employee assistance program counselor Tina Jaeckle. She outlined the pressures every officer can face: "It's the shift work. It's the stress on the family. It's the lack of money. It's a difficult career."
But law enforcement can also produce a culture where officers may not seek help for mental health issues, she said, because it can be seen as a weakness. Nocco echoed that sentiment. He said law enforcement officers must become more open about their struggles and start address on-the-job mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It's very hard to change the culture," the sheriff said, "where people are told to suck it up."
Officers should treat stress and anxiety like they would treat physical injuries sustained on the job, he said.
"People think it's a badge of honor that I got scraped, I got stitches," he said. "The bruising, sometimes, is mental."
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Rodriguez appeared in the Pasco County Sheriff's Office's active social media feed, discussing cases she handled, and offering tips to the public and reinforcing Pasco's mantra to lock up after 9 p.m.
Her personal Twitter account is a window into her daily life as a deputy, a mother and grandmother. When officers were lost in the line of duty across the county, she remembered them. She offered positive reinforcement to others, tweeted about her faith and was thanked for her running tips.
In July 2018 she answered questions from the public about herself. Rodriguez sold real estate for 13 years before deciding to become a deputy.
"What inspired Deputy Rodriguez to become a deputy was helping people and the investigative part of the job," tweeted the agency's official account.
Someone asked if she had encountered sexism on the job: "Every now and then Deputy Rodriguez will get a rude suspect who doesn't want to speak with her, but says for the most part women are better at using verbal judo. It makes it easier to calm down suspects and get them to talk to her."
In a tweet sent out Feb. 15, Rodriguez described a stressful arrest she was involved in: "Spent five hours on a child abuse call. Suspect was arrested and literally released on bond before I wrote and submitted my report. #SMH"
The Sheriff's Office did not comment Monday on that specific incident.
Nocco himself once backed up Rodriguez on a call. He called her a "great deputy." When asked if she had recently been involved in any stressful incidents or assignments, Nocco said all law enforcement officers are under stress.
Veteran officers who have worked a decade or more are often at risk of harming themselves, Jaeckle said, because of a build-up of "cumulative stress" over time. She added that many factors or illnesses besides stress or PTSD can lead to suicide.
Pinellas sheriff's Deputy Carlos Felipez, 46; and St. Petersburg Fire Rescue firefighter Todd Rosenberger, 40; both died by suicide in December.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is grappling with two suicide-related incidents from last year: A 39-year-old deputy fatally shot his wife, then killed himself in their Land O'Lakes home in September; and then in December a 58-year-old deputy killed his wife, daughter and grand-daughter before killing himself outside Plant City High School.
Nocco said chaplains and a critical incident stress management team were made available to Rodriguez's squad. He implored any law enforcement officer who needs help to immediately seek it.
"It doesn't matter where you are in life," the sheriff said. "If you need help, obtain it."
Contact Langston Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727-893-8659. Follow @langstonitaylor.
Correction: Jim Large is the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue chief. A video previously attached to this story incorrectly identified Large. A different St. Petersburg firefighter died by suicide.