NJ AG hopes new plan will prevent police suicides

37 NJ LEOs have killed themselves since '16

By Joe Atmonavage
NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

TRENTON, NJ — Marked on New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s 2019 calendar was a date to serve food to the homeless in Trenton with Mercer County sheriff officer Pablo Santiago.

Though they’d only met a few times, Grewal took a liking to Santiago and his “larger than life personality.” He looked forward to volunteering with Santiago.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announces the New Jersey Resiliency Program for Law Enforcement, a first-in-the-nation statewide program that will train officers in resiliency and help destigmatize mental health issues.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announces the New Jersey Resiliency Program for Law Enforcement, a first-in-the-nation statewide program that will train officers in resiliency and help destigmatize mental health issues. (Photo/Joe Atmonavage | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

That day never came.

Instead, while eating dinner with his family on Dec. 26, Grewal received a phone call that Santiago had shot himself dead inside the Mercer County Administration building, one of 17 law enforcement officers who committed suicide in the state last year. A total of 37 have taken their own lives since 2016.

“Anyone who has met Pablo Santiago would tell you he is probably the last person who would have taken his life,” Grewal said.

On Tuesday, an emotional Grewal described that haunting phone call as he announced a statewide program he envisions will provide needed support to officers as they handle the daily stress of police work.

“We cannot fully comprehend the emotional and mental stress that our law enforcement officers suffer on a daily basis,” Grewal during a press conference at the Newark Police Department to announce the New Jersey Resiliency Program for Law Enforcement.

“We owe it to them to not only combat the stigma associated with seeking help, but also give to them the tools they need to deal with the stress and trauma they endure.”

The program is the first of its kind in the country, according to the Attorney General’s office.

Grewal’s directive will require state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies to each designate someone to train officers in resiliency and be a resource for those seeking help.

By 2022, every officer in the state will have gone through a two-day training session that addresses mental health, coping mechanisms and removing the stigma for asking for help.

Officers will be provided techniques that help them “spiral up” instead of down in order to meet day-to-day challenges. The training will emphasize an officer’s positive strengths, rather than their weaknesses.

[Read: Steps leaders can take to prevent officer suicide]

As part of the directive, Grewal announced Robert Czepiel, the chief of the prosecutors supervision and training bureau in the state’s division of criminal justice, as the chief resiliency officer, who is in charge of implementing the program across the state.

Grewal said the directive will show law enforcement in New Jersey that their “physical and emotional well-being is our top priority.”

“Too many of our officers suffer in silence,” Grewal said.

Pat Colligan, the president of the New Jersey State Police Benevolent Association, said the 17 law enforcement suicides last year needed to be addressed.

“If we had 17 line-of-duty deaths, we would be screaming,” Colligan said Tuesday.

According to Blue H.E.L.P., at least 167 officers committed suicide last year nationwide, more than the total number of officers killed on the job.

Grewal said suicides should be thought of in the same vein as line-of-duty deaths because job stress puts officers at a higher risk for health and social related issues.

“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, director of the state’s Division of Criminal Justice.

Grewal said there are programs throughout the state currently addressing the issues officers face outside the job, but they are not a statewide requirement. He said the new program will work in tandem with the existing ones.

“We are committed in this state to drawing the stigma away from mental illness, especially when it comes to our law enforcement officers so I don’t have to get another call on Dec. 26,” Grewal said. "So we don’t have to get another call in the middle of the night that a law enforcement officer was to afraid to seek help and took their own life.”

“I don’t know what the metric of success will be, but if we can help one, this is well worth it,” he said.

©2019 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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