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Nassau County cops, correction officers to get more mental health help, officials say

At a news conference on Monday, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran spoke about new legislation that will provide more mental health assistance for Nassau County police and correction officers in an effort to prevent suicide among their ranks.  (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

Nassau police and correction officers will soon have access to enhanced mental health services as the county does its part to stem a troubling law enforcement trend — cops taking their own lives.

County officials cited the suicide earlier this month of a Nassau police officer and the deaths of 10 NYPD cops so far in 2019 as proof of the need for more services.

“Today we are sending a message to the brave men and women who serve and protect our communities … we are here for you," said Nassau County Executive Laura Curran Monday at a news conference in Mineola.

Curran signed legislation expanding assistance available to cops who may be in crisis.

"It’s OK to ask for help — and we are making sure that help is there," said Curran, who also signed legislation Monday prohibiting the throwing or spraying of water or similar liquids at first responders.

The enhanced assistance will include confidential peer support, training, and other resources, including a smartphone app and website that provides information for officers on the signs of depression and suicidal behavior.

“These are devastating statistics," said Ed Perkins Jr. of the Superior Officers Association in Nassau, of the spike in police officer suicides. “We have to do something."

The death of the Nassau police officer, a 27-year veteran, came amid what NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill has declared a mental health emergency in his department after the suicides of 10 officers this year. The most recent occurred Oct. 15 when Sgt. Linhong Li, 33, died by suicide in his Queens home.

Nassau police have not identified the officer who killed himself at his Massapequa home. He was the first Nassau police officer to die by suicide since May 2017, department officials said.

“We cannot have another suicide," Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said Monday. "We cannot let another member go into that dark hole of distress and think that the option is to take his own life.”

Ryder said the "stigma" of mental health issues among law enforcement "has got to be broken. … We have to make sure that we are taking care of our members.”

Nassau police responded to the officer’s home at about 6 p.m. Oct. 7 after receiving a report of a shooting. The officer was transported to Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, where he was pronounced dead, police said.

“He worked every day to keep our communities safe and his death is a tremendous loss for this department,” Curran and Ryder said in a statement at the time. “He was also a husband and a father."

On Monday, Ryder said that during the officer's funeral “we lined up as that was a line of duty death, because many times the cause of that suicide is what occurs in their life here when they are at the job, and then they take that home, and it affects their home life."

Asked if he thought cops — whose culture often can encourage a macho attitude — would accept help with mental health problems, Ryder said: “The stigma, the machoism … we’re breaking those walls down and we are letting our members know there is always help. There is always an answer for you, and you should always reach out.”

The bill was "a great step toward providing them with the resources and the support they may require," said Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature.

Law enforcement officials, he added, "have stresses that we can only imagine."

The new programs, which will be available for both the Nassau police department and sheriff's office, will cost about $287,000 for each agency, officials said.

Blue H.E.L.P, an organization that advocates for mental-health services for officers, said 180 active and retired officers nationwide have killed themselves this year. The organization said 169 retired and active officers killed themselves in 2018 and 168 died by suicide in 2017.

Police officers and firefighters are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty, according to a 2018 white paper commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation, an advocacy organization for people with disabilities. The suicide rate among firefighters, 18 per 100,000 population, and police officers, 17 per 100,000, is significantly higher than the rate among the general population, 13 per 100,000, the paper said.

A second piece of legislation signed by Curran outlaws the throwing or spraying of water or similar liquids at police, peace officers and first responders.

Several such incidents in New York City and elsewhere in the country this summer spurred the Nassau Legislature to act.

Police officers have been subjected to "degrading and humiliating acts," said County Legislator Joshua Lafazan (I-Woodbury), who sponsored the legislation and attended Monday's news conference.

In a July incident in Harlem caught on video, two officers were shown being doused with water and pelted with empty buckets while making an arrest.

The new Nassau law calls for up to one year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine for offenders. Officials said they believe it is the first such law in New York State.

“We ask you the public all the time: zero tolerance for hate, zero tolerance for racism and antisemtism," Ryder said. "Now it’s zero tolerance for harassment of police.”

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