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LI officials offer extra help to local cops in light of record numbers of NYPD suicides

Nassau PBA president James McDermott on Wednesday in Mineola discussed how the stress of the job, increased instances of depression and lack of mental health resources have led to increases in police suicide. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Police departments on Long Island are expanding mental health services for officers, including hiring and training more staff to provide outreach, amid a record number of NYPD suicides.

The Nassau and Suffolk police departments, which officials said have not recorded the same elevated suicide rates, are focused on intensifying efforts to get this message out to their members: There’s no shame in seeking help when dealing with the stresses of police work or personal problems.

“We’re the tough cops, right?” said Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder. “We’re not tough. We’re people like everyone else. And it’s OK to ask for help.”

Since January, nine NYPD officers have committed suicide — compared with four officers who took their own lives last year. Just this week, two NYPD officers committed suicide in separate incidents in a 36-hour span. On Wednesday evening, Robert Echeverria, 56, a West Islip native, shot himself to death in his Queens home. And early Tuesday morning, 35-year-old Johnny Rios, a seven-year veteran assigned to a Bronx detail, died in an apparent suicide in his Yonkers home. In 2017, five NYPD officers committed suicide and in 2016 there were four.

The increase in suicides in the nation’s largest police department has taken place as policing has come under intense scrutiny. Some police union officials have pointed to what they call an anti-cop climate following a series of controversial police-involved fatal shootings and in-custody deaths nationwide, which have stoked widespread criticism, protests and calls for police reforms that they say has increased on-the-job stress.

And earlier this summer, videos showing uniformed NYPD officers being doused with water — and retreating from the assaults — caused outrage among police brass and union officials.

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said her department has hired a full-time chaplain, who has done similar work with the FBI, to make contact with any officer who encounters an emotionally difficult situation at work. Suffolk also recently expanded a police union peer support effort to all of its police unions, plans to provide a daylong training on suicide awareness and is launching an internal website with mental health resources available 24 hours a day.

Nassau police are producing a video for officers that will be available in all patrol cars and on electronic devices, urging them to seek help if they need it.

Additionally, Ryder said the police academy is rolling out early next month 16 hours of wellness training — information on getting enough sleep, exercise and eating well — for new cops in the police academy. Current officers already receiving in-service training will receive an additional hour on wellness.

“We need good, healthy, strong members out there to handle everybody else’s problems,” said Ryder. “But sometimes we forget about our own. And so we have to make sure our members are prepared and we offer them everything we can for them to stay healthy.”

The Nassau and Suffolk police departments declined to provide statistics on the number of officers who have taken their own lives, citing privacy concerns, but both said no members have committed suicide in the last year.

Each Long Island department has personnel, such as sworn officers in employee assistance, who arrive on the scene to console officers involved in shootings or other traumatic events — contacts that are kept confidential. They also offer peer counseling through the member unions.

But as the NYPD suicides have mounted, the police brass on Long Island said they thought they needed to do more.

Suffolk Chief of Department Stuart Cameron said he worried as he saw officers respond to fatal overdoses of teens and young people — events that can leave lasting stress. Cameron said the department was able to make the chaplain post, which was a part-time job that was largely ceremonial, a full-time job for Chaplain Stephen Unger with the support of County Executive Steve Bellone.

“Now officers are going to overdose calls where a young adult didn’t wake up, maybe for school, or for work, and the parents find them and the scene is very emotionally charged,” said Cameron. “And maybe [the responding officers] have children the same age, maybe even have children that are also struggling with substance abuse, and it really, really can strike home."

After a Medford mother allegedly smothered her 2-year-old twin daughters and drove to a Montauk park in June, Hart said she made sure officers involved in the case were offered mental health support.

“This is a job like no other, where there’s just constant trauma on a daily basis,” said Hart. “So if we can be out here supporting our members, that’s what we really prioritize here.”

Ryder recalled the traumatic events he experienced as a young cop, reciting the details of a baby death from sudden infant death syndrome when he was a sergeant in the Fifth Precinct in Elmont.

“I remember taking the baby from the mother,” said Ryder. “I started CPR on the kid, we got him over to the hospital … I remember going home and waking up like five or six hours later and saying, ‘What’s that taste on my mouth?’ It was baby formula.’”

And in the late 1980s, Ryder said, another officer who was a friend fatally shot himself mere feet away. “I remember running towards him, my legs just turned like rubber,” he said.

Ryder said he never sought professional help to emotionally process those experiences or others he had on the job. But he was always comfortable sharing his feelings with his wife and other family members and friends, he said.

“I’m a talker, so I’ll sit down and talk to people about it,” said Ryder. “I told that story [about the baby] at dozens of events, because it helps me understand it. That could have been my kid.”

Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), said no one knows if job stresses are the main cause of police officers committing suicide. Wexler said the federal government needs to track and study the issue.

“The wakeup call for all of these tragedies in New York should be we need to collect better data and get behind the data to figure out what’s driving this,” said Wexler. “We do not know the full extent of this problem because no official government entity captures this information.”

While the NYPD offers significant mental health resources to its officers, said Wexler, many of the nation’s other 18,000 law enforcement agencies are challenged financially to provide the same services. Wexler said smaller departments should take a regional approach in sharing counseling services.

Wexler said departments should do “psychological autopsies” on officers who commit suicide, to learn as much as possible about why the officer was driven to take his own life.

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill has repeatedly urged struggling officers to ask for help. After three cops committed suicide in a 10-day span in June, O’Neill said the department was in a “mental health crisis.”

On Thursday, O’Neill, calling the effort to end the suicides the department’s “number one priority now,” announced a series of new initiatives, including a cellphone app on officers’ phones with mental health resources available 24 hours a day.

The NYPD also announced a new mandatory training program, the Shield of Resilience Training Course, to help cops in need and give all department employees the ability to help any colleague who may be struggling.

In a statement to Newsday, the department said the one-hour online course will be tailored for those in law enforcement and "unveils the challenges of a career that presents a high risk of suicide." The course material includes videos and gives officers a chance to provide feedback.

"The training is not the only method of the NYPD's resiliency outreach and training. It's just a start with more being developed," the department said. 

But getting help to officers in need can prove difficult in a job that has traditionally viewed acknowledging the need for aid as a weakness.

Ninety percent of the 8,000 active and retired police officers in 49 states who responded to a 2018 survey conducted by the Fraternal Order of Police and NBC News on officer wellness said there was a stigma to seeking mental health counseling.

Unger, who said Hart and Cameron have taken to calling him and pointing out incidents where he should contact officers, said he operates by “loitering with intent” while at a scene where he’s been dispatched to provide counsel.

“That is part of the uphill battle and that’s why the peer teams are so important,” said Unger. “Because when they see people that look like them and talk like them, it’s at least a little easier."

Most officers are appreciative knowing that someone is concerned for them, he said.

“They go through this really critical, difficult incident and everybody says great job — maybe — and then they go home and they go home alone and the family may not understand what they just went through, and they don’t necessarily want to talk to their family or they live alone,” said Unger. “So they’ve just lived through this very difficult situation. They’ve just seen one of the most difficult things they’ve ever seen and they’re having to face it alone. And now what we’re trying to do is call them and say, ‘you’re not alone.’ ”

Although the Suffolk department does not statistically track how many officers use mental health services, Hart said officers are taking notice of the enhanced efforts.

“We’re getting a lot of feedback informally,” she said. “People appreciate the kind of proactive stance that we’re taking here. We’re not just saying, ‘Oh, these services are available if you need them and there’s a memo on it.’ We’re out there and we’re proactively approaching you.”

There have been 122 police suicides nationwide this year through early August, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts nonprofit that tracks them. Last year, the group, which concedes its statistics are likely incomplete, recorded 167, which was two less than the 169 in 2017. In 2016, the group recorded 142.

More officers died by suicide last year than the 145 who died in the line of duty, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Fund.

Nassau Police Benevolent Association president James McDermott called the rising suicides in the city “unacceptable” and he said officials in New York City need to do more to prevent them.

McDermott said the things officers see on any given day — bodies charred in a house fire, people killed in car accidents — coupled with not feeling supported in communities where they police, appears to be fueling the problem.

“We’re being attacked for doing our job and we have a mayor that is definitely not backing his cops,” said McDermott. “They have to worry about being perfect, because that’s the standard they’re being held to … and then on top of it, you have a man on the very top that’s not backing you.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio penned a letter this week to the department's 36,000 sworn members, speaking in personal terms about the suicide of his father when the mayor was 18 years old, and urging those who are struggling to seek help.

"The suicides of our officers, it’s extraordinarily painful," de Blasio said Thursday. "We have lost officers in the past but this concentration is devastating. We’re going to do everything conceivable to help officers and to stop this."

McDermott urged cops concerned with being ostracized for seeking help to do so using their health insurance.

“You don’t have to go through the police department to get help,” said McDermott. “You can go pick a counselor.”

With Anthony M. DeStefano, Matthew Chayes and Maya Rajamani

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