Officer skepticism is the most significant obstacle the NYPD must address if members of the service are to believe they can seek out mental-health resources without fear of derailing their careers, according to the heads of two police unions.
“We need to work on communicating and expressing that resources are available and that people can take advantage without harming their careers,” said Roy T. Richter, the president of the Captains Endowment Association.
Edward D. Mullins, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said the stigma associated with mental illness—whether real or imagined—is nearly as problematic as the maladjustment that can take root over the course of years of police work.
“People are afraid to come to the department because the trust factor isn’t there,” he said.
3 in 9 Days
Over a nine-day period earlier this month, three members of the NYPD, including two who had spent decades with the department, shot and killed themselves, prompting Commissioner James P. O’Neill and other department officials to implore officers to seek help if they sensed life and its attendant challenges were bearing down.
“This is a mental-health crisis,” Mr. O’Neill posted on his Twitter feed. “And the NYPD & the law enforcement profession as a whole absolutely must take action.”
On June 5, the Executive Officer of Patrol Borough Queens North, Deputy Chief Steven J. Silks, 62 years old and weeks from mandatory retirement, killed himself. A day later, Brooklyn South Detective First Grade Joseph Calabrese, a respected 57-year-old homicide investigator, also fatally shot himself. On June 14, Police Officer Michael Caddy, a 29-year-old domestic-violence officer, shot and killed himself near his 121st Precinct stationhouse on Staten Island.
The Commissioner first spoke about officer suicide a day after Chief Silk’s death and hours before Detective Calabrese’s death would become public.
‘Can’t Hide From This’
“We cannot hide from this discussion, we should not, and we will not pretend that these things don’t happen, and then pray they don’t happen again,” he said at a Police Headquarters event commemorating Pride Month.
His subsequent Twitter post, following Officer Caddy’s death, directed members of the service to a message on the NYPD’s webpage that includes contact information for counseling and mental-health resources. “We must take care of each other. We must address this issue—now—because it will not go away on its own,” it read.
Although Mr. Richter praised the Commissioner’s effort as well as the resources available to officers, he said the department needed to do better.
“It’s obvious that the success we’ve had getting the message out has been limited,” he said.
Despite the entreaties—including from Chief of Department Terence A. Monahan, who in a video posted on Twitter said seeking help “will not prevent you from having a successful career”—officers are fearful, whether of losing their firearms, getting transferred, or losing promotional opportunities, Mr. Mullins said.
And so the strain “gets compounded,” he said.
He recalled seeing volunteers from the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance, all of them current or retired cops, at a function honoring Det. Brian Simonsen, who was killed by friendly fire in February. All were identifiable by the POPPA jackets they were wearing. Not one officer approached them. “As far as we’ve come, we’re still missing the point,” Mr. Mullins said. “You can have all the programs in place, but if people don’t trust them, what’s the outcome going to be?”
‘On All Our Shoulders’
But Lieut. Janna Salisbury, the commanding officer of the NYPD's Employee Assistance Unit, said officers who reach out to the department’s peer-support program are assured that confidentiality is nearly absolute, the only exceptions being when suicidal ideation is detected, or when an officer admits to major misconduct.
“Any conversation between the member of the department and the peer counselor regarding any personal or professional kind of stressors that are going on in their life would be held confidential,” said Lieutenant Salisbury, whose four years with the unit followed 13 years as a patrol officer.
Typically, she said officers who speak with any one of the unit’s 13 full-time members, who are available 24/7, are referred to counselors outside of the department. “So none of that stigma and none of that embarrassment follows them,” she said. “Nobody knows.”
Reaching out, she said, will not hurt an officer’s career, and in fact could be the one thing that saves it. “The only way we're going to reduce the stigma is to normalize these resources that mental health resources are normal,” she said.
She said the culture within the department has changed sufficiently since she joined the NYPD to allow for those conversations to take place among officers.
“It's definitely talked about a lot more than when I started 17 years ago. This wasn't, I don't think, a conversation that cops were having in the lunchroom or at roll call,” Lieutenant Salisbury said. “And now it is.”
What’s prevailed is the concern cops have for one another, she said. “Our responsibility to take care of the guy sitting next to you doesn't end at the end of every radio call,” she said. “That's something that kind of falls on all of our shoulders.”
Should Work With Unions
Mr. Mullins, who sits on a Federal Justice Department committee addressing cops’ well-being, said the department could be doing a better job of collaborating, including with police unions, to get officers both the resources and the help.
“I can’t tell you how many times someone has come to me with a problem” he said. “There’s a comfort level."
The NYPD, Mr. Mullins said, does not sufficiently cultivate the innate “buddy system” that develops among fellow officers and even supervisors.
He suggested the department would do well to institute periodic engagements with counselors or therapists, much like officers schedule twice-a-year visits to a shooting range.
Takes Away Aversion
“If everybody has to do it, where is the stigma?” he said.
He said the SBA is spearheading a union-run wellness program that, in part, will facilitate anonymous conversations between officers and peer counselors. Mr. Mullins said he and the union will spend $225,000 on the effort, which will be expressly directed to NYPD cops, but available to officers from any jurisdiction.
“I want you to know we are there,” he said. “If an officer calls from L.A., I am going to help.”
Recalling a conversation with a Navy SEAL about the effects of combat and even of the routine, Mr. Mullins said members of the special-operations team debrief regularly and as a matter of course. He said the NYPD would do well to emulate that effort. New York City cops, he said, too often visit with tragedy, whether at a fire scene, a traffic accident or a gangland shooting.
“All of that trauma builds in the back of your brain,” he said.
Mr. Richter said Chief Silks, whom he called “a tremendous friend,” was, paradoxically, the commander officers knew they could seek out to discuss their issues, which garnered him even more respect.
“He was the go-to guy. People went to him with their problems,” Mr. Richter said. His death, by his own hand, was all the more confounding because, weeks away from retirement, albeit because of department age mandate, Chief Silks had plenty to look forward to. Some of his colleagues, however, sensed it was the thought of being without police work that left him despairing.
While Mr. Richter said “a number of us are looking inward to see what can be done,” he also admitted that achieving insight in the wake of a string of suicides will be difficult:
“It’s tough to say you’re going to fix the world when you’re coming off three tragedies.”
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