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Nassau lawmakers: Create office of mental health for cops

Nassau Legislature Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello, at lectern,

Nassau Legislature Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello, at lectern, during the announcement in Mineola on Tuesday of a bill that will give police officers greater access to mental health resources. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A sharp rise in NYPD suicides this year has sparked calls from Republicans in the Nassau Legislature to open an office in the county's police department offering officers mental health services. 

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) announced two bill proposals at a news conference Tuesday morning to create an Office of Mental Health and Wellness in both the Nassau police department and the sheriff's office. The offices would create a website and app with depression and suicide resources, and also provide wellness training. 

“Whatever it takes to protect these officers, we’re going to do it,” Nicolello said in Mineola with members of his caucus and officials from police and sheriff's labor unions.

Nicolello said the office would also offer assistance to NYPD and Suffolk police officers who live in Nassau.

“It’s not just for Nassau County officers," he said. "The idea is, if there are officers from other jurisdictions living in Nassau County … these resources will be there for them.”

Nine NYPD police officers have killed themselves in 2019 — more than double the four city cops who took their lives last year. Although no officers in the Nassau and Suffolk police departments have died by suicide this year, top brass in both agencies said they have recently trained more personnel and provided increased resources to officers who may be struggling with work stress and personal problems.

Among those who attended the news conference and expressed support for the legislation were labor officials representing Nassau law enforcement, including James McDermott, president of the Police Benevolent Association, John Wighaus, the president of the Detectives Association, and Brian Sullivan, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

“Unfortunately, when you work in law enforcement, you’re not immune to the same pressures and the same stresses that everyone in daily life is susceptible to,” Sullivan said. “But we don’t work in office buildings. We don’t work at the post office. We work with the worst of what society has to offer.”

Nicolello said the expense to taxpayers would be nominal.

“I don’t see a great cost to this at all,” he said. “It just establishes this office within the police department. And how much does creating an app or website cost? It’s going to take additional personnel, yes. So I don’t have a dollar figure for you yet, but these services they’re providing are invaluable to us. The safety and lives of these officers is invaluable to us so whatever the cost is, we’ll pay it.”

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, who Nicolello said was not consulted before the legislation was introduced, said the department already has a plethora of resources available to its officers, including peer support and employee assistance programs.

In a statement, Ryder said the department is currently providing additional mental heath training to all officers, detectives and supervisors. Additionally, he said, in September the department will begin providing police recruits with 16 hours of mental health training. 

“I would like to thank Legislator Nicolello for his support and proposing additional services," Ryder said. "I look forward to discussing other options with him in the very near future." 

Nassau County officials last week unveiled a free app, Nassau C.A.R.E.S., which cost the county $100,000.

The Nassau C.A.R.E.S. app, which is available to all county residents, lists agencies and phone numbers for anyone contemplating suicide or needing help with drug and alcohol abuse and gambling. The app also provides information on treatment centers and other resources.

Nicolello said the proposed app for law enforcement would mirror the NYPD’s POPPA [Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance] program.

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday: “My administration is committed to ensuring that our Police Department has all the resources necessary for mental health wellness.”

Nicolello said he would “certainly entertain” any idea from the police department on how to strengthen his proposal. Nevertheless, Nicolello said he imagined both the department and his Democratic colleagues would be in full support.

“I know the police commissioner,” Nicolello said. “He’s going to be 100 percent supportive of this.”

Asked about Democrats’ support for the bills, the legislature’s Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport) said in a statement: “Any initiative that will improve the well-being and on-the-job performance of Nassau County police officers is something that we would seriously consider supporting.”

The bills were co-sponsored by the legislature’s Republican majority and Legis. Denise Ford, a registered Democrat from Long Beach who caucuses with the Republicans. The bills were introduced Monday afternoon and could be voted on as soon as next month. 


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