Earlier this month, following the ninth suicide by an NYPD officer this year and the second in two days, department officials set in motion several initiatives to head off what threatened to become even more widespread.
The departmental initiatives emphasize that help is available, that officers can and should support one another, that there are vastly better options than taking one’s own life, and that seeking help will not jeopardize one’s career. Police sources who spoke on background said the efforts are reaching a wide audience and have so far been well-received.
The rash of suicides has rocked a department already under scrutiny from within and from outside for its handling of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of officers more than five years ago. Commissioner James P. O'Neill and Chief of Department Terence Monahan on several occasions addressed the matter, at NYPD functions, on TV and radio, and via social media. Department-wide efforts, run under the leadership and guidance of First Deputy Commissioner Ben Tucker’s office and including numerous departmental units, took on added urgency after four officers took their own lives in June alone.
The department recently completed two executive-level trainings—three-hour sessions attended by roughly 200 Captains and ranks above them—that addressed the persistent stigma associated with mental-health issues and how to combat it, and available resources and options, both inside and outside the department, for officers in crisis. They also included an overview of the risk factors and warning signs of potential suicides.
The sessions also underlined the importance of, and need for, fellowship: That peers can and should depend on one another in times of crisis or even near-crisis.
The trainings, which are ongoing, include a presentation by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s chief medical officer, Dr. Christine Moutier. The sessions have a threefold purpose, the sources said: to address those attendees who might otherwise be hesitant to tap into mental-health resources; to educate them on how to spread that message to those under their command; and to address any stigma against seeking help.
Commanding officers share what they have learned at roll calls. Police sources said the messages are not scripted but rather are spoken colloquially. Informal feedback from officers has so far been positive, sources said.
The department is embracing a command-level peer-support group concept for a simple reason: familiarity. “These are the people that work with each other every day,” said Det. Jeff Thompson, the department's Mental Health and Wellness Coordinator.
The command-level training emphasizes checking in with a colleague in need, and then listening to them, not to problem-solve, but “to help de-escalate their tense, negative emotions,” he said.
Quite often, that’s enough for the majority of people. Sometimes, though, nudging someone to seek more help and support is key. Following up—showing genuine care—can also be essential. The department earlier this year sent out a survey to both officers department civilians to see how and what programs it might improve or expand.
It convened focus groups to measure similar aspects from which the peer-support initiative grew. Department officials then put together a prototype by speaking with police colleagues in Los Angeles, which years ago designed a suicide-prevention campaign based on a public-health model, and also by looking at private companies’ anti-suicide efforts.
The department also instituted what it calls resiliency training, which entails coaching officers, via one-hour sessions, on how to bounce back from adverse situations and to ask for help if need be.
“And the way we tell it to our officers is, you called for help out there on the street when you need help from other officers,” Detective Thompson said. “This should be no different. If you go into a tough time, it's OK to reach out for help. That's what resiliency is and that’s true strength.” Each of the department’s 36,000 uniformed officers will eventually go through the training.
While prevention and education efforts have intensified of late, the department has had dedicated personnel and resources in place for some time, including a partnership with the city-based American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and some work with public-health experts at Columbia University.
Department psychologists, chaplains and peer counselors from the Employee Assistant Unit also started doing command visits in mid-August and will continue to do so. “We’re going into every single command. We're making sure we get every single tour,” Detective Thompson said.
The department will also begin incorporating mental-health experts from NYC Well, an arm of the city’s Thrive initiative, that also runs helplines accessible by voice, text or chat.
Detective Thompson said while no departmental initiative on its own can fully address the multiplicity of mental-health issues, and particularly those that can lead to a person to take his or her own life, he was hopeful the department’s manifold approaches could at least encourage officers to consider the varied options.
Early signs are encouraging, and indicated that cop culture is changing, ready and sometimes even willing to confront what a generation or two ago was considered taboo to even talk about.
Increasingly, officers are speaking up during or following roll-call, at which mental-health issues and their possible resolutions are discussed.
“They feel comfortable enough to say, ‘hey look, I went and got help and I'm still here. I'm still full-duty, I have my shield, I have my gun,” Detective Thompson said.
While he concedes some officers might be cynical about the department’s efforts, the response, on the ground, in the precincts, in the command houses, has been constructive, certainly, but also encouraging.
“Every single place we go to, people come up to us and talk to us afterwards...Sometimes it's just asking for a pamphlet, other times sharing something personal. And other times it's just saying, ‘Hey look, can I get that phone number?’ And maybe it's for them, maybe it's for somebody else,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome that they feel comfortable enough to do that.”
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