San Diego police captain Lesli Lord killed herself – why?

Joanne Archambault tries to explain

— When San Diego police captain Lesli Lord killed herself on August 25, Joanne Archambault was furious. "I went home raging about who would do this to their children," says Archambault, a sergeant in SDPD's sex crimes division. "But I have a sister who's manic depressive. She happened to be home the day Lesli killed herself. And she quickly put me in my place. She said, 'People who do this are obviously in a psychotic episode. They feel that their children are better off without them because they've sunk to such low [self-esteem], their perception of themselves is so bad at that point.' "

But why would a fast-track cop like Lesli Lord sink so low? She was a success story in the SDPD, one of the department's top five women. Why would she take her own life? Because of the stress, says Archambault, stress every cop shares. Because, she believes, the city won't help cops coordinate home life with stressful police work. "Bottom line is they want you to have these [university] degrees. Most of us come on [the police force] at age 21, 22, so you're supposed to be involved with the community off-duty, plus you're supposed to go to school, get your advanced degrees [if you want to be promoted], and yet you're supposed to work 45 and 50 hours a week. It's really nice to be able to say that 'We think family's important,' but I'm not sure how much we support that [in the department]."

And Archambault's not just talking about female cops. The day after Lord shot herself, 37-year-old detective Tony Castellini committed suicide. He was also reportedly a model cop. He also reportedly had family problems.

After the two deaths, a distraught Police Chief Jerry Sanders said he was determined to take "aggressive action to address the problems that place such heavy emotional burdens on police," according to the Union-Tribune.

Stress is certainly part of Archambault's job. "I supervise sex crimes. We have 13 detectives in here. There's another sergeant. We handle all felony sexual assaults in the city of San Diego, and then we handle the sex-offender registration program. It's a very high-stress job, a lot of tragic circumstances, and working with high-profile cases. Sex crimes, like child abuse, but 14 and above. We deal with all of it -- in-house, out-of-house, strangers, just straight rape, hot prowls, kidnappings -- you name it."

Archambault says she gets midnight calls. "The [officers] call me up and ask, 'What do I do?' Any time there's a major incident, like a rape, and they don't know what to do out in the field, we're available to the field officers, 24 hours a day."

That sort of intrusion carries over to her marriage -- her second. Her first was to a cop. Now she's married to a "civilian," a commercial landscaper. "He copes well with the phone ringing five and six times a night sometimes, which must be really stressful. I know there are nights when Rick, my [police] partner, doesn't sleep in the same room with his wife when he's on duty, because she can't get back to sleep after he gets called."

There came a moment in Lesli Lord's and Joanne Archambault's lives when they knew they were going to have to make a decision between career and family. Lesli Lord went one way; Joanne Archambault went the other. Lord rose to captain. Archambault remains a sergeant.

"My decision to have a child came with the decision that this job wasn't all-important to me," says Archambault. "If I died today, what would I have missed out on? If I'm just going to school every night and working, the people that mean the most to me -- which are my family and my loved ones -- I haven't been able to be with because I'm doing all this crap over here. So for me it was just making that decision.

"When I came on the [police] department at 22, I'd done a lot of traveling, I was the bottle on the ocean bobbing around whichever way the waves took me. Then, all of a sudden, I'm almost 40, and I can't bob around anymore. You've got this biological clock ticking here. It was now or never.

"I made the conscious decision to stop going to school. I had 170-some units. And that could definitely hurt you [professionally]. The [top brass] are looking at people with advanced degrees [for promotion]. I speak Spanish and Portuguese. I could have gotten a degree in Spanish and rode through.... Sometimes it's all the hoops. I seriously think this department needs to look at the hoops that we put up. How we tend to try to cut people out of the herd. So, in the meantime, [officers] are just giving everything to this job [to make the cut].

"It would be interesting to do a poll of the ranking officers on this department to see how much [unused] leave they have on the books. Because they don't take their leave! I know that my captain, who was just promoted, was telling us that he was maxed out on the books, and any more leave that he accrued, he was going to lose. [The department] just keeps demanding more."

Archambault, on the other hand, took her leaves. "That's one thing that my first husband and I did really well. We did take really nice vacations."

And since she had her daughter in November 1996, she's cut back on her hours too. "I went back to the five-eight -- working five days a week and eight hours a day versus the ten, because the ten was just getting too stressful. I was getting home at a quarter to seven, and [my daughter] was so young, I'd put her in bed by eight o'clock, and I'd have an hour a day with her. That's all. [Now] I get home at 4:30, 4:40 at the latest.

"But the problem is that I'm very limited. For example, I couldn't work homicide right now. Because I can't go on call-out. A lot of us find this. My husband leaves for work at five o'clock in the morning, so if I got called out for a homicide at three [in the morning], there's no way. There'd be no one at home. I would have to go back to having a nanny, which is very expensive. I'm just very limited to where I can go [professionally] right now."

What should be done?

"I've long thought that the city could do a hell of a lot better with making some sort of day-care arrangements than what we do. We're a big agency [SDPD], and when family is definitely the biggest stresser we have -- because it is so complicated when you work the hours and shifts that we do -- surely there's something that we can do to help people out. I don't think we've ever made any try at that. I don't know what the issues are, whether it's liability insurance, but even my husband's business -- a nursery business -- had day-care for their employees, for God's sake."

The other thing, Archambault says, is insurance. "The city doesn't pick up dependent insurance. It's expensive! And yet 20 years ago when I was working for the community college district, all my dependents were covered. Eye care and medical. And we don't get dependent care. That amazes me."

Why haven't essential issues like day-care and insurance been pushed by present management and organizations like the Police Officers' Association? Archambault guesses the people facing these problems are mostly young cops with families, the cops with the least horsepower.

"Chief Sanders is always talking about family. But I don't think that [SDPD] does a lot to support that."

"[Day-care] is certainly something that we would take a look at," responds Chief Sanders, "if officers wanted to surface that as an idea. But being spread out all over the city, it's sometimes difficult to get enough officers in one place who have the same needs to be able to create a program for that." Sanders adds that child-care and dependents' insurance is already available to

"any city employee" who wants to designate money from their "cafeteria-style benefits," money given to buy a health plan, life insurance, or other options.

Female cops face particular problems, says Archambault, especially those who "marry out."

"Every year, there are a number of young women who come to the police academy and they're already married -- to civilians," Archambault says. "The statistics are that they're going to end up divorced within a few years. How many men could feel comfortable being at home in bed while their wife's working patrol in Logan Heights?"

Beneath these relationships, she says, is "the whole stereotypical issue where the male's supposed to be the protector.

"Here you're living with or going out with a woman who's got the gun, and in fact in a dangerous situation she's probably going to be the one that's going to be responding. I think that men have to be very, very secure about who they are, about their masculinity, to be teamed up with female police officers.

"So a lot of us end up [marrying] police officers."

That's what happened to Lord and Archambault. Yet, for Archambault, cops marrying cops is a mixed blessing.

"The advantages would be that we could understand each other, and you're working shift work together, so you can sometimes rotate. A lot of them, to help eliminate the cost of day-care, are purposely working opposite shifts. So there's usually more understanding there."

The other good thing, she says, is that your partner understands the emotional stresses of the job. "I think that we're 'good ears' for each other. I know that my ex and I went through the Ruopp and Tonahill shootings. [Officers Timothy Ruopp and Kimberly Tonahill were killed in Grape Street Park in 1984.] And I remember how good it was to have someone who understood that. That was really traumatic for us."

But there's definitely a downside. "When you're both in the force, [you can get] the situation where two people both want their needs met. If it's two people saying all the time, 'I'm not getting what I want,' then that's where you see people going different directions. Because we can't always be the one to say, 'My needs get met first.' "

She used to watch the female cop show Cagney and Lacy.

"I always loved [the relationship of the officer] who was married to the civilian. He was such a nice guy. I used to think, 'God! I wonder if there are really guys like that who can handle that?' Because, basically, he was Mr. Mom, and he could handle his wife going out all times of the day and night, and he was always taking care of the kids... I used to think, 'Yeah, right! Where are those guys at? Huh?' "

Archambault's marriage, to a sergeant who's now a senior ranking officer in the SDPD, ended in divorce. Lesli Lord's husband Steve Moss also recently filed for divorce. Moss is a sergeant. Lord was a ranking officer, a captain with the added prestige of running the Regional Community Policing Institute, a training academy that teaches the principles of neighborhood-based policing.

"A lot of cops can't turn off the authority," says Archambault. "That might have been an issue with Lesli and Steve. Lesli definitely wanted to go up, and I think Steve might be more comfortable with who he is or where he is. I'm just reading into their relationship from my own personal experiences."

In his divorce suit, Steve Moss sought custody of their three children. The implication, that Lord had forsaken her family for her career, was clear.

"I look at Lesli," says Archambault. "Here's a woman who went for her Ph.D., who was in a very, very demanding, busy job -- how much did she really get to do for herself, to take care of herself?"

Cops are by nature caretakers, says Archambault. "[They are often] children of alcoholics, ultra-responsible, take-charge caretakers. My father quit drinking when I was very young, but he definitely still had some of the tendencies, the personality traits, and he came from a long line. But I think my biggest issue was just growing up in a large family with six brothers. I was definitely a caretaker. That to me is a cop."

And it is these traits, Archambault believes -- cops' belief they can "handle it all" -- that the police department takes advantage of.

Having stepped off the advancement ladder, Archambault is philosophical.

"I have a very interesting unit. We have six detectives in here with newborns. We all had babies at the same time. And this is a very senior unit. These are people my age. Late 30s and early 40s. It's very stressful because we're all on call. But you know what? I love my job. I love this department.

"But [advancement?] No, I don't care about that. And having watched my [first] husband come up through the ranks -- and we [were] together since he made sergeant -- maybe I had an inside view, and that was helpful.

"He is now [a high-ranking officer], and I have a baby. We make our choices. And I am very happy with mine. Anybody that wants to go where those people go, give 200 percent on the job, working 15-hour days, fine.

"But I think that a person in Lesli [Lord] and Steve [Moss]'s situation, when a person feels that the only important thing in their life is the job, when the family feels that they are way down there on the totem pole, I don't think that's a good feeling for a family to have.

"A lot of people have talked about the fact that they think this [SDPD] department really needs to look at that.

"I see it this way: my daughter's going to be two years old in November. For the first time in almost 19 years, I'm taking Christmas off this year."

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