Recent incidents of suicides within the NYPD has many people asking, “What is going on? Why are these happening? What can we do about it? What should we do about it? How do we protect our protectors?”
The police commissioner has declared it a mental health crisis. The president of the union representing the rank and file made a plea, eerily reminiscent of former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s plea when a war on drugs was declared, “Just say no.” The union president plea, though a bit more blunt, emotional and direct was “Don’t f* do it.”
Both the commissioner’s declaration and the union president’s plea were good first steps. They were necessary. One needed to be declared; the other needed to be said. No one should deny that. The question is will it work? Will it be effective? Is it enough?
The chairperson of the Public Safety Committee within the NYC Council is on record to draft legislation to expand mental health services and mandate counseling for police officers.
Mental Health crisis and police officers? Counseling and cops? This can’t be. Police are a symbol of strength in our society. They carry firearms. We call them when we need help. I mean law enforcement are our protectors.
From a community perspective, how should we look at this? Is this our problem? Isn’t that a police problem? I say no. It may be happening within the NYPD, but it is certainly a community problem.
For one, agree or not, police (NYPD) are as much a part of the fabric of our communities as any other entity. They live, work and grow here just like any other part of the community. When a community ebbs and flows, the police ebb and flow with it.
Secondly, when officers are experiencing problems, what impact does that have on the community? A police officer who is having difficulty coping still responds to call for services. They are still expected to deal with the drug dealers, console victims of crimes, give advice and the likes.
How can they positively impact the community in this current state? I would argue that yes, it is a community problem.
But there are other members in the community who face a towering amount of stress as well such as our teachers, transit workers, bus drivers and of course our EMT workers. What happens when they are facing a crisis that is not adequately and sufficiently dealt with? What impact does that have on our community?
According to recent reports, the Chicago Police Department, which also has experienced challenges when dealing with suicides within its rank, is mandated under a federal consent decree to increase the number of counselors in its employee assistance program. This was not a suggestion from the federal government—it was a mandate. Why did the federal government mandate this? This decree resulted in an investigation that described the CPD as badly trained, largely unaccountable and prone to needless violence. Did something reveal itself when the feds decided to place Chicago under this decree, perhaps that there is a link to needless violence and officer stress? If true, then officer stress is indeed a community problem. We need good policing and we deserve it. The officers also deserve our support when they are in need.
For the record the NYPD is under a federal consent decree as well and no such mandate was placed on it.
There has been nine suicides within the ranks of the NYPD this year. This does not include recently retired members. Compare that with reports that nine is approximately double the average of the suicides of the past few years. This represents a significant increase.
Now some may ask is this an anomaly? Something that statistically happens every so many years and that will correct itself. A life is a life and if it’s preventable one life is the same as 100.
For years there have been discussions about the psychological toll that police work has on officers. Exposure to gruesome crime scenes, round-the-clock work schedules, engaging in life-threatening situations. Reports have shown working long, inconsistent shifts have resulted in elevated stress levels. Were these officers exposed to gruesome crime scenes? Did their daily assignments leave them with a toll of psychological warfare that beat them down? Is there anything that can be derived from these unfortunate incidents that can be used to prevent similar situations in the future?
Police may or may not go through more stress than their non-police brethren. Life is difficult. It is hard and offers obstacles that too many may feel insurmountable at times. Life has a way of rearing its ugly head. But one thing that police have when dealing with these problems that others don’t have is “the gun.” It’s always there. I would be interested to know how many police suicides over the past 20 years, 30 years, 40 years did not involve the use of a gun.
When someone is going through tough times and feel that they are better off dead than alive the one thing that police officers don’t have to think about is how to do it. That part is settled. It’s the gun. It’s here, it’s always been here. You can do it, right now, right here. It is one last thing that police officers don’t have to think about when in that state of mind. That final last hurdle is settled for police officers and that, in my opinion, are why solutions to the police suicide crisis are unique, important and urgent.
So, as we discussed how past steps are good, helpful and useful, like declaring this a mental health crisis, these are steps that should be built upon.
So how do we do it? Well, there is no one panacea for this problem. There has to be a plan which compiles many steps. Let’s examine the possibility of not only expanding services and counseling but strategically, deliberately and methodically removing the stigma of counseling. How do we do that? Better yet, how do we get the police officers to speak with counselors before there is an issue? It is great to recognize that you are under a lot of pressure and you need some help, but it may be better for us to realize that speaking with a therapist BEFORE there is a problem may eliminate the problem to begin with. I think society is recognizing that.
In the TV show “Billions” there is a character named Wendy who is the company psychiatrist. She plays a significant role in the company she works for. What interests me about her role was that she, though not a stock analyst, is a big part of the fabric of the company. She is part of the culture of the company. There are no stigmas when going to see Wendy because everyone does. She socializes with them. She eats with them. She goes to their home, she parties with them. She is part of them. The head of the company made a comment in one of the episodes that he needs “a Wendy” to keep his worker from getting wound up. He said if they get wound up it affects them, and they cannot perform up to standards (which is to make him money). He went on to say that the nature of their industry and the pressure that they go through will cause elevated stress levels. Interesting. He didn’t say to just unwound them. The line was to keep them from getting wound up to begin with. Well, “Billions” is a fictional TV show, and we are talking about real-life officers. But there may be some parallels. How do we help our officers from getting wound up to begin with? We know that they are performing a job that is going to causes a higher level of stress than most people. Mix in the trauma caused by life’s challenges (finances, marriage, children) and we have a built-in crisis. Does this mean that there should be a therapist in every precinct stationhouse? I don’t know. Maybe. Culture is big in law enforcement. Positive culture is as big a reason as anything that has helped them achieve success. Negative culture has the reverse impact. But we can change the culture that seeing someone is OK. And it starts with everyone seeing a counselor/therapist. Not only when something is wrong. We all have to find a way to destress, to get rid of the challenges that life will exert on us. They are not going away. Those challenges are here to stay.
Many industries have started to develop this concept. They call them many things, such as performance coaches. But one of the things they are doing is removing the stigma that speaking to someone is a sign of weakness. Contrary, it is a sign of strength. Changing this culture in law enforcement comes with a price. This can be notably expensive for an agency, a city. For that I’ll repeat a conversation with a friend who changed his diet and started eating healthy. I said eating healthy can be very expensive. Everything cost more. He said it’s a lot cheaper than the cost of getting sick. The solution to this problem may cost. But the police are worth it, and I know the community is as well.