Created by Carmen East, the widow of fallen Texas Tech Police Officer Floyd East Jr., the organization will host a golf tournament fundraiser this July at The Rawls Course.
Oct. 9, 2017, found Carmen East finishing up the first day of her second week in Ireland. A programmer developer and project manager, she had traveled to her employer's office in a small town about three hours outside of Dublin and was staying at a local hotel during a two-week software implementation.
As she got ready for bed, she spoke on the phone with her husband, Officer Floyd East Jr. It was six hours earlier in Lubbock, where he was preparing to begin his shift on the Texas Tech University campus. The Easts lived in El Paso with their two daughters, but Floyd, who had recently taken the position in Lubbock with the Texas Tech Police Department, chose to travel each week instead of uprooting the entire family.
“Monday was going to be the end of his shift, and then he was going to drive home,” Carmen recalls. “I said goodnight to him, he said goodbye to me, I said good morning to him, and then he said he would call me later. I went to my room and fell asleep.”
Several hours later, Carmen says she woke up with an immense feeling of love for Floyd. An hour later, her cell rang. It was her best friend, who was staying with Carmen's daughters in El Paso, asking if Carmen had heard from Floyd.
“I said, ‘I did earlier, but not right now.'” Carmen says. “She said, ‘There's a situation. There's an officer down at Texas Tech.'”
After a moment of silence, Carmen reminded her that she and Floyd had discussed scenarios like this. He wouldn't be able to be on his phone during a critical incident. No news meant good news.
Almost immediately, her hotel phone began to ring.
“Ma'am, I'm sorry to wake you,” Carmen heard when she picked up the phone. “But there is an urgent call from the chief of police at Texas Tech.”
Chief Kyle Bonath was on the other end of the line, with the worst news the family of a police officer can receive.
“There was an incident,” Carmen remembers Bonath telling her. “Officer East has passed.”
A thin blue line
Immediately, Carmen began packing. On the trip home, she considered what Floyd's death meant to her family, and how they would continue and survive without him. What she did not expect was the amount of support she would receive not just from her friends, family and colleagues, but from other families who had been through similar tragedies, people she had never even met.
“We got letters from all over the world: ‘Here's a check for $1,260 in memory of my son, who died. That was his badge number: 1260,'” Carmen says. “Another said, ‘So sorry for your loss. Here's $427 in memory of my wife, who was an officer, 427 was her badge number.'”
Floyd's funeral, including a processional in Lubbock to the airport and a service in El Paso, turned into what Carmen called an “incredible, large event.” The following April, Carmen and her family traveled to Florida to take Floyd to his final resting place. An avid deep-sea diver, Floyd had spoken of being cremated and having his ashes turned into an artificial reef that would be placed in the ocean.
“We had so many officers waiting for us when we landed in Jacksonville,” Carmen says. “They gave us an honorary escort to the island of St. Augustine, and there were police officers on the side of the highways saluting him, we had flags on the bridges as we passed. We had more than 37 officers on motorcycles and cars meet us at the beach house we had always rented when we would go diving. We go to bury him at sea, and there were 63 Coast Guard boats accompanying us 15 miles out into the ocean, and each of them came and saluted us after he was put down to rest.”
The support, every step of the way, was overwhelming, Carmen says.
“I never expected anything, but it was the thin, blue line individuals and families,” Carmen says, referring to the imagery often used when speaking of the bond officers share. “It was a lot of beautiful things that we had never asked for. There was something inside of me that said, ‘I've got to pay it forward, I've got to give it back. I've got to do the same humble thing that they are doing for me.'”
Creating Texas 635
The following month, Texas 635 was officially established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Named using Floyd's badge number, the foundation offers support to families and law enforcement officers after a traumatic event, also known as a critical incident, which can range from on-the-job stress due to intense calls, to the death of an officer.
One of the organization's primary goals is offering financial support to families after a loved one is lost in the line of duty.
“We offer a one-time, financial assistance payment to the family,” Carmen says. “It's a check for $635, in memory of Floyd, as it was given to me.”
After the organization was created, its members quickly became involved in the local community, providing gratitude bags to officers in El Paso during Police Week in May, which included information about the foundation. They also visited police stations, speaking to officers and offering resources and support.
Soon, officers were approaching the organization directly with requests for another type of assistance: mental health resources.
“We gathered again, with our first board, and realized we were seeing something we were not addressing,” Carmen says. “We've talked to many officers who won't reach out to the services provided in their departments because they don't want to be taken off the beat, given a desk job and then everybody is going to know there's something wrong. But it seems like these officers are reaching out to us to try to get help with stress levels and mental wellness, and we need to address it.”
The negative stigma that surrounds the topic of mental health in policing is well-known in law enforcement, says Tyler Snelson, Texas 635 board secretary and a corporal who has served in the Texas Tech Police Department for eight years.
“It's finally starting to become more and more talked about, and more and more officers are seeing it's OK to reach out and ask for help,” Snelson says. “But there's still that fear of repercussions, of what people will think. Will they think I can't do my job anymore? That stigma has to end. It's cost too many lives already.”
Overcoming the obstacle
In response to the need for more mental health resources for police officers, Texas 635 board members created the Blue's Space Program in 2019. The program provides peer-driven, nonclinical, mental health retreats in St. Augustine for law enforcement officers suffering from critical incident stress.
Led by fellow officers certified in critical incident training, the retreat gives participants a chance to work through emotions and stress that come with their job while bonding with other officers who have dealt with similar situations.
Blue Space Program - Photo Gallery
“For the most part, police officers want to talk to other officers,” says corporal canine handler John Fitzgerald, who has been an officer with the University of Maryland Police Department for the past 16 years. “We don't want to look at ourselves as broken. You just want someone to talk to who also gets what you've been through or understands where you're coming from.”
Fitzgerald originally contacted the East family to ask if he could ride in honor of Floyd for the annual Police Unity Tour, a bike ride honoring fallen officers. Soon after, he completed critical incident training in El Paso and began serving as a leader for the Blue's Space retreat.
“When you listen to the stories others tell, you become humbled and reflect on things you have experienced and how you handled them yourself,” Fitzgerald says. “I hope the other officers at the retreats gain a sense of camaraderie and the knowledge they are not alone, and they're not broken.”
Snelson was one of the initial participants in the Blue's Space retreat and has since completed critical incident training to serve as a peer leader for the retreats.
“I'd suffered a critical incident in the line of duty and was struggling with my own mental health,” Snelson says. “I saw how much the retreat changed my life and the lives of the other guys who went through it and how much we all benefited from it. I'd never heard of anything like this before, but I knew right then I had to do whatever I could to grow this, to allow the opportunity for any officer who could benefit from it to be able to go through it.
“You send them somewhere they can talk to their fellow officers who have also been involved in critical incidents,” Snelson adds. “They know exactly where you're coming from and what you're going through because they've been through it themselves. This is a tremendous help. It provides the opportunity to just open up and know you're not going to be judged or ridiculed or anything. And that makes a big difference.”
Fitzgerald says an opportunity like this could mean the difference between continuing to serve as an officer and possibly being removed from the department.
“You always want to catch a problem before it escalates to something greater that becomes detrimental to a career,” Fitzgerald says. “We know now that the mentality of ‘Suck it up and handle it,' doesn't work. You have to let people talk about what they think, because it's not ‘normal' to see a lot of the stuff we see, and we need to address the reactions that happen. I'm glad the mental health aspect of policing is at the forefront, especially with Texas 635. I believe the organization is hitting the nail on the head in addressing major issues with officers.”
Snelson says being in a leadership role for the retreats allows him to give other officers the tools necessary to get them on the path to healing, something he finds rewarding and therapeutic for himself.
“I hope they see that it's OK to have struggles, that there's nothing wrong with that,” Snelson says. “There are others out there to help them get through that process. No two critical incidents or the way each person reacts are going to be the same. A lot of times people like to compare, but just because you think somebody had it worse than you doesn't discount the stress you've gone through. It doesn't mean that you can't also get the help you need.”
Dealing with COVID-19
Texas 635 was able to lead two sessions of the Blue's Space retreat before the coronavirus pandemic led to closures of events across the U.S. in early 2020. Canceled events meant a decrease in fundraising efforts for the organization. The pandemic also led to an increase in COVID-19 related officer deaths. The result was a faster-than-expected depletion of funds, which then led to the cancelation of upcoming retreats.
“COVID-19 hit us pretty bad,” Carmen says. “We did a lot of creative fundraising during the past year because everyone was isolated. That helped tremendously to bring up our funds again.”
For now, their efforts have been focused in El Paso and Lubbock. This year, Carmen says, they plan to restart the retreats.
“We're gearing up, and during the latter part of April, we are going to have the female officer retreat,” Carmen says. “We're asking everyone to please make sure they have their vaccine before they attend, and we've already taken all the COVID-19 precautions so we can have a safe retreat and get this going again. Then we have another retreat in October, which is the men's retreat. Some of the individuals who we were pending from last year will be able to attend this year.”
The foundation also is working on ways to continue funding its work. This summer, The Rawls Course at Texas Tech will host the Texas 635 Golf Tournament honoring Floyd. The tournament, supported by the Office of the President, tees off at 8 a.m. July 16.
With team spots and different levels of sponsorships available, the tournament will serve as a fundraiser for the foundation. It is the first in what Carmen hopes will be an annual event, and something that will help spread the word about the organization and its efforts.
“The main impact we want from the tournament is for Texas 635 to gain national recognition,” she says. “Our mission is to provide non-clinical services to law enforcement officers. It would be great, in the future, for this type of program to be incorporated into every police department throughout the country.
“We want the mission to live beyond us, to continue Floyd's memory and to help more officers throughout the country, year after year. We want to watch those numbers increase as we help save lives and honor our fallen. Thank you to Texas Tech for continuing to support Texas 635, and to the Texas Tech Police Department. They have always been our No. 1 fan and supporter.”
To learn more about Texas 635 and the golf tournament, visit the organization's website or contact tournament director Michael Sanchez at (915) 549-7570.