An estimated 37 law-enforcement personnel have committed suicide in New Jersey since 2016
A growing body of research suggests that the on-the-job stress police and other first responders face leaves them particularly vulnerable to depression, substance abuse and suicide — at higher rates than among the public at large.
Now Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has created a proactive statewide program designed to bolster law-enforcement officers’ resiliency to mental-health issues with special training on how to better handle the traumas that are common to their work. The initiative requires all state, county and local police agencies to participate, making it the first of this kind in the nation, he said.
Grewal signed a directive Tuesday establishing the Law Enforcement Resiliency Program, appointing a state resiliency officer to oversee its implementation at the state level and requiring all county and local agencies to do likewise in their jurisdictions. The order also sets a detailed schedule; the state, county and local resiliency leaders will gather for a two-day seminar in October and then be responsible for rolling out the training so that all Garden State law-enforcement personnel have completed the two-day course by the end of 2022.
“We cannot fully comprehend the emotional and mental stress that our law enforcement officers suffer on a daily basis,” Grewal said in a press release. These responders are often the first to arrive at gruesome, deadly incidents and must always operate in a hypervigilant state, factors that take a toll on their well-being, the release notes.
“We owe it to them to not only combat the stigma associated with seeking help, but also to give them the tools they need to deal with the stress and trauma they endure,” he added. The training will include techniques designed to help police officers meet these daily challenges by building their own resiliency to stress and helping them focus on positive strengths, not weaknesses, according to the release.
Working alongside other programs
Grewal said the program will not replace existing models designed to help law enforcement officials cope with these issues; rather, the directive encourages cops to make use of all available services to best address their needs. It also considers other chronic health issues associated with law-enforcement work, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
“This Directive recognizes that protecting an officer’s mental health is just as important as guarding their physical safety, and strives to create a supportive culture for law enforcement officers, their families and friends, as well as the broader New Jersey community,” the order notes.
Grewal tapped Robert Czepiel, who oversees a supervision and training unit in the Office of the Attorney General’s Division of Criminal Justice, to serve as the first chief resiliency officer and oversee the statewide program.
The resiliency initiative grew out of the efforts of a working group that includes State Police leaders, county prosecutors, sheriffs, municipal departments and treatment experts. Officers in Maple Shade participated in the working group and have already received training.
The directive has the strong support of police union leaders.
“This program is well overdue to protect our officers that protect our citizens every day,” said Robert Fox, president of the New Jersey State Fraternal Order of Police. “It is quickly forgotten by the public how dealing with tragedies, such as our last two recent [mass-shooting] ones, in El Paso and Dayton, will haunt these officers during their careers and have lasting effects on them and their families.”
Research compiled by the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation and published in April 2018 shows that the repetitive traumas first responders face contribute to several forms of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorders and depression. One study found those diagnoses are up to five times more common for police and firefighters than the public at large.
They also die from suicides at higher rates than civilians and, in several recent years, these suicides have surpassed the number of officers killed in the line of duty, Ruderman found. According to Blue H.E.L.P, a national organization that tracks these statistics, 37 New Jersey officers have died of suicide since 2016.
Ruderman also reported that first responders face significant barriers in getting help, in part because they are reluctant to talk about stigmatized conditions like mental illness. In addition, just 3 percent to 5 percent of the 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in the United States have suicide-prevention training, the foundation noted.
New Jersey’s efforts to address these issues date back at least two decades, when a spate of police suicides led to the creation of a crisis-intervention hotline that connects troubled law-enforcement officials with peers specially trained to help. The program, now known as Cop2Cop (1-866-COP2COP), is run by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care and is credited with averting more than 300 suicides in the years since, according to the website.
“Law enforcement suicide prevention is fostered by building strength, as well as by responding to crisis needs. This project will create a needed continuum of law enforcement peer support,” said Cheri Castellano, Cop2Cop’s longtime director. She said the new statewide resiliency program would allow for coordination with Cop2Cop, to help ensure officers’ get the right kind of help.
‘A very positive step’
Behavioral-health treatment providers have also played a role in providing peer-counseling services and other assistance to first responders. Princeton House Behavioral Health, part of the Penn Medicine Princeton Health system, launched a program in 2013 that has since helped hundreds of police, firefighters and other first responders, as well as corrections officers and veterans.
Princeton House has also incorporated proactive resiliency measures in its program more recently in an effort to help first responders manage the emotional toll of their work and seek help when they need it, explained Michael Bizzaro, the director of clinical services there.
“This directive is a very positive step in recognizing and appreciating the hard work our first responders face on a daily basis,” he said.
Grewal’s directive goes beyond these existing efforts to create a coordinated statewide program focused on prevention, which is required for all law-enforcement agencies. The effort is also designed to spark a culture change that makes seeking help more acceptable to law-enforcement personnel, he said, and to foster more open communication among officers and with their family members. And it includes confidentiality protections for officers and each agency’s resiliency leader to help encourage that dialogue.
“The constant exposure to society’s most difficult problems can take an emotional toll on law enforcement officers that, if not addressed, can build up over time, often with tragic consequences,” said Veronica Allende, the OAG’s Division of Criminal Justice director. “Our goal is to teach law enforcement officers how to recognize and manage that stress to remain mentally healthy and avoid going down a dark hole.”