Bill would allow police to get mental help without repercussions

In December, East Lyme Police officers went to a motel room and found 25-year-old Corina Zukowski lying in a pool of blood with stab wounds to the neck, hands and chest.

In January, Montville Police found two elderly homicide victims on their kitchen floor and spoke with their grandson, who was later charged with killing John and Gertrude Piscezek.

Other area departments have responded recently to fatal highway crashes and drug overdoses, armed standoffs , shootings and sexual assaults.

Those are just the cases that make the news. Daily exposure to trauma is the norm in police work, and the stress can lead to depression, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, has now introduced a bill that she said would enable police officers to get the mental help they need without negative consequences, reversing an unintended effect of a law passed six years ago after the Sandy Hook school shootings.

"If a police officer is seeking help and goes into an inpatient facility for any reason, they lose their badge and gun for six months, and in many cases, if it's a smaller police department, they end up losing their job and can't return," Somers said during a phone interview Thursday.

The proposed bill, "An act concerning mental health and wellness training and suicide prevention for law enforcement officers," would enable officers to get the help they need and return to work after being evaluated by a physician and psychiatrist. Somers said that as a result of the current law, she's heard of departments sending officers out of state "on the down low" if they need mental health treatment.

The bill is modeled on a law passed last year in Illinois that enables police officers to seek treatment without fear of negative job consequences.

"They are are evaluated by a physician and a psychiatrist, and they are the ones that determine if the officers can come back to work, rather than having a legislative mandate," Somers said.

Police officers and union representatives spoke in favor of Senate Bill 380 at a Feb. 11 public hearing, and a firefighters group asked that they, too, be given consideration. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities urged the lawmakers to hold off on the bill, noting it had convened a group of municipal officials and fire and police employees to develop a legislative proposal to assist first responders with mental health issues.

Somers said she expects the bill to be raised to the full Senate.

Police officer deaths by suicide have surpassed line of duty deaths in recent years, and the trend is continuing into 2019, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a Massachusetts group that compiles police suicide statistics and advocates for prevention. Their data indicates that 160 officers died by suicide nationally in 2018 and that there have been 31 officer suicides since Jan. 1. The Officer Down Memorial Page reports 17 line of duty deaths nationally so far this year.

Thirteen Connecticut police officers died by suicide between between Jan. 1, 2016, and Dec. 31, 2018, according to Blue H.E.L.P.

Supporting the proposed bill is Trish Buchanan, widow of East Hartford Police Officer Paul Buchanan, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2013. A decorated officer with 24 years of service, he had been diagnosed with job-related post traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, depression and anxiety. He left his family a note saying, "... make my death an issue so you can get help for other people like me. ... I wish I could tell people that every time I think of work I get stressed out and anxious but if I told them I was suicidal I would be out of a job."

Officer Caleb Lopez of the South Windsor Police Department told the committee members that officers should not be afraid or ashamed of admitting they are hurt and should be able to seek help and know where to go.

"I sought help and it made me a better officer, a better husband, a better father, and a better person," Lopez wrote. "Yet even now, I still am fearful of how it might be used against me."

Police agencies have been having conversations about job-related trauma for years.

Ledyard Police Chief John Rich is co-chairman of the board of directors of the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, a group that addresses common issues related to mental health. A retired state police lieutenant, Rich worked as a peer counselor and said having specially trained and trusted officers available to talk to their peers can be an effective bridge to treatment.

"There are not a lot of other professions that are so susceptible to exposure to some of the psychological poisons that police officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics see on a daily basis," Rich said during a phone interview Friday. "Anything we can do to take away barriers for others to seek assistance and to make it more a normal part of our culture in law enforcement."

Some departments have programs to help officers stay healthy, including Groton Town Police, which has a wellness committee.

Rich said its important to include retirees in the discussion, since unresolved issues can come back after the job is done. He said three of his former co-workers from the state police died by suicide.

"That's where we need to change culturally," he said. "If we train peole from the academy that this is a real issue in our jobs, and we have that conversation regularly throughout our training, my hope is that when the officer gets to the end and it's time to retire they'll be more the wiser about the potential."

East Lyme Police Chief Michael Finkelstein said 30 years ago, officers weren't debriefed after critical incidents and nobody talked about problems with trauma.

"The mentality was, we're not going to talk about it," he said. "We're tough guys and girls."

k.florin@theday.com

 

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