Police body camera (168269)

On Labor Day a 48-year-old retired NYPD officer was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in a transit parking lot on Arthur Kill Road on Staten Island.

During a news conference on recent crime statistics Police Commissioner James O’Neill said about the Staten Island incident, “He retired in 2012 and with any suicide, active or retired, we’ll take a look at that and see what the circumstances were. I don’t have an answer for you right now.”

When asked about a possible connection with the outbreak of suicides among police officers O’Neill responded, “So far this year we’ve looked at each and every one of them. I don’t see a connection there.”

This year there have been 10 police officer deaths by suicide; eight of them have occurred since June.

When asked about mental health support for their brethren, an NYPD spokesperson emailed a statement saying the department is establishing programs to help cops.

“The NYPD has a moral imperative to explore all options to support the mental health and wellness of members of service,” read their statement. “The police commissioner established a Health and Wellness task force to address this mental health crisis. The task force is already rolling out new initiatives like executive and command-level Health and Wellness training, a peer support program, and increased staffing resources.

“Department officials have sought input from mental health experts, medical facilities, other police departments, and current members of service,” continued the NYPD’s statement. “Regardless of source, the task force will consider all thoughtful input on how to provide police officers with the mental wellness resources they deserve.”

Recently, the NYPD established a mental health informational app, an independent medical facility where an officer can make an appointment within 24 hours, and an increase in insurance coverage for mental health issues. All part of its suicide prevention initiatives.

The NYPD is also currently implementing a peer support program where volunteers are recruited on the command level to be trained in mental health awareness. These volunteers would provide support and assistance to members of their command. They’ll be trained by mental health professionals and work with internal departmental resources.

But officers have been afraid to come forward if they have any mental health issues. They believe that the stigma that still surrounds mental illness leads to shame and they’re afraid of what coming forward could do to their career.

Social worker Phyllis Thomas said that the police department is aware of the problem and has begun the work to make sure officers are in the right mental state.

“It seems that the officers themselves recognized the need for extra support for their fellow officers and organized a peer assistance program called POPPA,” said Thomas. “Along with the peer group, they found it necessary to bring in professional clinicians such as myself. In dealing with the challenges of the job, it is essential to having a support system in place. Not only is suicide a priority, relationship problems, extreme mood change, substance abuse, medical issues, bereavement, anger management and PTSD are some of the areas we work in to help keep officers competent and resilient.”

But what happens when someone deems the programs in place not good enough?

Earlier in August Officer Robert Echeverria killed himself. The Laurelton, Queens resident was the ninth officer to do so this year. Echeverria’s sister, Eileen, blamed the NYPD for ignoring her cries for help and emails she sent saying her brother was having issues.

In multiple interviews, Eileen said she’d contacted the NYPD’s internal affairs department close to 10 times warning them of her brother’s mental state. She said she sent them emails stating he was suicidal, homicidal and was dealing with financial stress.

“He threatened to kill me,” Eileen told Newsday. “I begged them. The psychiatrist saw him once and said, ‘He’s okay,’ and gave him his guns back…and almost two months to the day, he shoots himself in the heart.”

Echeverria had recently been assigned to the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group: the group that responds to terrorist attacks and civil unrest.

Psychologist Jeffrey Gardere stated that suicides and mental health issues are commonplace with professions that consistently deal with difficult situations where lives are usually at stake.

“I believe that the inordinate statistics of officer suicide for the NYPD for a time were consistent with the statistics of first responder suicide rates given that first responders typically are involved with horrific, tense, life and death situations,” Gardere said. “If they don’t get regular debriefings or seek therapy they go untreated with PTSD which only worsens for them with the continued exposure to stress. There is also a catch 22 in that if they seek help for mental health or stress issues, they may have their guns taken away and assigned desk duty. Also the nature and stress of their work also negatively impacts their family lives leading to more emotional upheaval.”

But how does the union feel about it? In the wake of Echeverria’s death, Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch channeled his inner-Nancy Reagan in a video posted on Twitter.

“Don’t fking do it!” Lynch said. “It solves nothing and leaves devastation behind you. Just don’t do it.”

The AmNews attempted to contact the PBA and Lynch for comment on this story, but didn’t get a response.

Gardere said that statements such as Lynch’s do more harm than good.

“I believe the last piece they need is to crush the stigma of mental illness and encourage mental wellness as an important part of effective policing and personal well-being,” said Gardere.

The NYPD recently held a candlelight vigil at City Hall recognizing the officers who had taken their own lives this year. The vigil coincided with the beginning of National Suicide Prevention Week. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that the city planned on increasing access to mental health care services for cops, but didn’t get into specifics.

The AmNews also tried to contact de Blasio’s office for comment and they didn’t respond.