RESOURCEFUL: The NYPD’s Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo, left, and First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker testified at a joint meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Mental Health and Hygiene Committees on Sept. 19 regarding legislation that would require the department to augment its mental-health resources and initiatives. The bill’s introduction, by Councilman Mark Levine, followed a spike in officer suicides. 

The City Council is looking to bolster mental-health resources within the NYPD following the suicides of nine active-duty members of the service, as well those of at least two retired officers this year.

Legislation sponsored by Council Member Mark Levine would require the department to hire additional clinicians to provide mental-health services and information to officers. It also would oblige it to provide annual confidential wellness-information sessions, publicize available resources and provide annual interactive trainings.

‘Finding a Solution’

The department typically had four or five suicides annually before spiking this year.

“But when we see that we have twice that number already this year, it tells us there is a more-urgent need to do more,” Councilman Donovan Richards Jr., the Chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said at the outset of a Sept. 17 hearing on the topic. “We need to get to the heart of this problem and get right to finding a solution.”

Seven officers have taken their own lives since June, a month when four committed suicide.

Addressing officers generally, he said the hearing and the legislation, which is likely to get fast-tracked, were about securing for cops “the safe space you need to deal with whatever you are going through,” whether within the department or through outside resources.

“When we as a city ask you to take our greatest challenges, we need to do more to make sure you have what you need to cope with yours,” he said, adding that the Council had had “productive conversations” with the NYPD on the issue.

Ensuring Attention

Councilman Levine said the department had just four clinicians, a number he called insufficient to effectively to serve its roughly 36,000 uniformed members, as well as nearly 20,000 civilians.

We owe it to people in this department to adequately serve them. That means that the vast majority of members of the department...will never be with one of those clinicians. That makes it that much more likely that they will suffer in silence until the crisis escalates,” he said.

Mr. Levine said the legislation, if enacted, would ensure that the NYPD would have staffing “to a degree that allows [clinicians] to be present in commands and precincts in a way such that, frankly, makes it normal to help remove the stigma, in the same way it makes it normal to see a doctor for an annual physical.”

First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker welcomed the legislation, which he said the department intends to put into place once funding is on the books.

“Our officers are no less immune from the myriad challenges and stresses many people experience in their professional lives,” Mr. Tucker said at the hearing.

Helping to Spot Signs

He said the legislation’s requirements would bolster a number of programming initiatives and trainings rolled out since the four June suicides. Among those are executive-level trainings—three-hour sessions for Captains and ranks above them—addressing issues related to the mental health of officers and available resources and options, both inside and outside the department, for officers facing personal or professional crises. Roughly 800 members of the service, as well as civilian executives, attended those trainings in the last month, he said at the hearing.

Mr. Tucker outlined other departmental “response protocols,” such as a peer-support unit that will embed within each command which will eventually number between 400 and 600 volunteer officers and other professionals.

“The volunteers’ responsibilities will be to...ask the officer about his or her struggles, listen to what they have to say and encourage them to have faith in themselves and to seek help if needed,” he said. Training is underway.

Building Rapport

That “wellness outreach unit” is modeled on a similar and successful program instituted by the Los Angeles Police Department that teams up psychologists, social workers and personnel from the department’s Employee Assistance Unit. Once instituted, the unit will comprise nearly 60 teams, or about one for every 1,000 officers, which will deploy to all of the city’s commands to proactively “establish familiarity and build a rapport” with officers, Mr. Tucker said.

Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo, the commanding officer in Mr. Tucker’s office, and the Deputy Commissioner were reluctant to assign any single cause to the rash of suicides, although Mr. Tucker did allude to recent anti-cop sentiments and events.

“There’s no question that the culture of antagonism and disrespect toward our officers that we’ve seen recently in the streets and on social media are powerful emotional stressors,” Mr. Tucker said. All of that, he said, “can have a cumulative effect.”

Mr. Pontillo, though, deflected questions from Councilman Joseph Borelli, who twice asked him whether anti-cop attitudes could be a factor in rising stress levels and even suicides.

Mirrors Public Trend

While officers are not “oblivious to political climate” and deal with a variety of stressors, including horrific crimes scenes and “people at their worst,” he said it would be “a mistake” to pinpoint one particular reason for the spike in suicides.

“There is no single cause,” Chief Pontillo said, adding that suicide has been rising for the last few decades with the national average roughly 12 per 100,000 within the general population and about 14 for police nationwide—a rate not remotely close to four times the national average Mr. Levine and Councilwoman Diana Ayala cited at the hearing.

“What we see is it’s a combination of biological, psychological and then social and environmental factors,” coupled to the ever-presence of an officer’s service weapon, Mr. Pontillo said. “It’s a very, very complicated issue. We’re all struggling for that ‘why?’ We just don’t know.”

But he was hopeful the department’s recently rolled-out programming and resources, which he likened to the NYPD’s community-policing efforts, could make a difference.

“This is internal neighborhood policing, where we’re developing trust between members of the service and the support staff that can help them cope with their issues, but also make them better cops,” he said.

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