When he was a young patrolman for the East Hampton Town Police Department, Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Austin McGuire responded to a 911 call for a man choking on a piece of steak at a Montauk restaurant.
Then-Officer McGuire and a colleague raced to the scene to find the man unconscious and not breathing. They cleared his airway and began performing CPR — to no avail — amid a scene of stunned patrons and distraught family members.
Chief McGuire says he still cannot walk into that same restaurant without flashing back to that stressful and sad moment.
The man would be just one of three people who would die, basically in the young officer’s arms, in a space of less than a month that year.
“Those moments, they really stick with you and, doing this job for a long time, it starts to wear on you from a mental health standpoint,” Chief McGuire said this week. “You see a lot of things that can’t be unseen.”
The mental stresses that are put on officers by the trauma and tension inherent in police work — and by the logistics of “the job” itself — have been a growing focus for departments around the country in recent years and have been put in a spotlight this year by the suicides of nine NYPD officers thus far in 2019.
Locally, the issue was pushed to the fore by the murder of two toddlers in Montauk earlier this summer that rattled police officers and emergency personnel who responded to the scene.
Even before the Montauk incident, Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki had proposed to the chiefs of the 10 other East End police departments that the local agencies needed a more robust emotional support network to help officers cope with the stresses their careers put on the human psyche, both in frantic moments and over the gradual accumulation of years and decades in uniform.
When he was chief of the Nassau County Police Department, he says, he saw the benefits such a peer-support network presented to his officers in dealing with traumatic events and the everyday hurdles their work presents them with.
Southampton Town has two chaplains already to provide counseling to officers and dispatchers, and the Suffolk County Police Department offers peer support but is limited by geographical divides with the East End. A regional network, the chief said, could provide much greater benefits to his officers and those of the five town and five village departments in the region. Other chiefs have agreed, he said.
“There’s two elements to it: There’s critical incident stress management, which comes right after a traumatic incident, and there’s peer support, which is broader and can cover on-duty, off-duty and family things that can affect an officer’s emotional health,” Chief Skrynecki said. “Crime scenes, car accidents, train accidents, those are things that are visually upsetting, particularly when it involves children and the officers have children of a similar age.
“Then there are things like the hours that we work, the rotating shifts, missing holidays and major family events, that causes stress in the family and stress on the officer,” he added. “It can be as simple as an acknowledgment that it’s normal and okay to feel what you are feeling. To hear another cop say, ‘I’ve been there, and I had those same feelings, and they will pass,’ or that ‘I needed some help to get past it, and here’s what I did’ can make a significant difference in how well an officer deals with it.”
The Reverend John Fleischmann has been working with the Southampton Town Police Department on traumatic stress management issues since a fatal accident in 2014 took the life of a young girl on a bicycle in Water Mill. He was already working at the time with the Suffolk County Police Department’s Critical Incident Stress Management team, which uses police officers and emergency responders from around the county to conduct peer support “debriefings” with ambulance and fire department volunteers after particularly horrific incidents. But police officers rarely showed up — until the debriefing following that Father’s Day incident.
“One of the detectives who was at the scene came up to me afterward and said, ‘Where has this been all our lives?’” Rev. Fleischmann recalled last week. “They were very impressed with the process, and it’s documented that just sharing how you are feeling brings a lot of relief, and that if you do that quickly it can keep a person from developing PTSD.”
The key to the critical incident stress management component is the peer support, he said, rather than using mental health professionals or even chaplains, with whom officers may instinctively be more guarded and unable to relate to as easily.
Chief McGuire agreed, saying, “For a lot of guys, there is this stigma to reaching out for help — it’s our job, this is what we do, deal with it, suck it up — but we are seeing what the effects of that are now and it needs to stop.
“You can go speak to a professional but to have someone to talk to that’s been through what you have, who has experienced the same feelings that you have, it makes a big difference,” he said.
In the network that the East End departments are now creating, each of the departments would send one of its officers, from a variety of ranks, to specialized peer support training. Those officers would then be available to meet with counterparts from other neighboring departments when needed.
Chief Skrynecki said that having that slight detachment from within one’s own department, but from the same general background, will further help to remove barriers and uneasiness that officers might have in being forthright about their feelings — as is necessary for the sharing process to work.
Beyond the critical incident spotlight, Southampton Town Police Lieutenant Susan Ralph says, the cumulative effects of police work follow a familiar pattern in officers throughout the country that have led to elevated rates of suicide, domestic violence, alcoholism and divorce in police officers.
After years on the beat, friendships with those outside law enforcement and recreational hobbies get fewer and the darkest sides of the job become the main focus of both on-duty and off-duty time — a combination that is a recipe for trouble regardless of one’s career and is magnified by one that includes the lingering effects of traumatic incidents.
Police departments throughout the county, she said, are realizing that having a broad support network to help their officers address the day-to-day stresses of their careers is becoming as important as the training received at police academies.
“There’s no class in the academy that teaches us how to balance our lives and how to maintain healthy relationships with people who aren’t on the job,” said Lt. Ralph, who is steering a comprehensive wellness program for Southampton Town’s officers that focuses on everything from healthy eating and physical fitness to emotional stress. “Our divorce rate is, like, 67 percent, because an officer can’t come home and talk about their day with their family like my parents did. Men don’t want to tell their wives and children that they saw someone decapitated in a motorcycle accident or a child in cardiac arrest.
“So they commiserate with a select group of people, which isolates your significant other and just leaves you focusing more on the job — and that causes additional stress.”
Father Joe D’Angelo, who also serves as a department chaplain for the Southampton Town Police Department, says that police officers sometimes are further isolated by the view of police in general by the outside public, who “only see the uniform and not the human being,” which can lead to altered self-perceptions for the officers themselves, he says.
“If you are seen as this knight in shining armor, you might be reluctant to disclose what’s cracked in that armor, and that becomes an emotional barrier,” Father D’Angelo said. “What we’re trying to do is tell officers that it’s okay to show emotion, that it’s okay to grieve like everyone else.”