Proposed bill targets suicide among officers

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HARTFORD — In his last words to his family, Naugatuck police Officer Robert “Tommy” Byrne told his 6-year-old son he was sorry and he loved him immensely.

“I’m being left in the mud and I can’t pick myself back up. My depression is too great and it would rub off on Ty. I don’t want him to have to continue to see me in this uncontrollable state,” Byrne wrote in a note before committing suicide Nov. 3. “He’s young enough to get over the memory of me and will be OK without me. I’ve tried medications, but nothing is stopping the bleeding of my broken heart. I’m sorry I failed my family.”

Fellow officer Rebecca St. George read the letter to members of the state legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee Tuesday.

“His death was devastating to us,” St. George said.

Five months later, St. George said the department is still healing.

Byrne was one of five Connecticut officers to commit suicide in the last three months of 2017, according to the Police Officers Association of Connecticut.

St. George testified in favor of a proposed state law she hopes will prevent other departments from going through the same loss.

The bill is intended to promote mental health and wellness training and suicide prevention for police officers in the state.

Middletown police Det. Derek Puorro said officers are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general public.

St. George believes the stress of being a police officer was a big factor in Byrne’s decision to end his life. She said the establishment of peer supports and access to mental health clinicians trained specifically in treating police officers and post-traumatic stress disorder would help other officers struggling with mental health issues.

“During my training to be a police officer I learned how to save a fellow officer from a gunshot or stab would, to prevent the bleeding until help could arrive. In Tommy’s case, his coworkers saw his battle with depression, but didn’t know how to effectively help him,” St. George said.

She said the bill would remove the stigma from officers to ask for help and the fear or losing their guns and their jobs. The bill forbids towns from disciplining or discriminating against emergency personnel who seek mental health services. Under current law, mandatory reporting means that officers who seek treatment in-state could lose their gun permit and thus their ability to work. The bill would allow eligible police officers to receive a gun permit even if they have been voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital within the preceding six months.

The bill would allow police officers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after a critical incident to return to work once the officer’s health care provider determines that the police officer is ready.

“With what’s offered in this bill, he would’ve had so many more options. I think if this bill was in place it probably could’ve been different and that’s a hard pill to swallow,” St. George said.

New hires must be trained in mental health wellness and crisis intervention techniques.

Finally, the bill would establish a database of police officers who commit suicide, which supporters said would help track trends. The Badge of Life estimates there were 140 police suicides last year.

Committee members expressed sympathy for the loss and support for the bill.

Rep. Brian M. Ohler, R-North Canaan, who served 12 years in the army as a military policeman including three tours overseas, said he lost “brothers” to suicide because they didn’t know who to reach out to.

“We know how this affects you,” he said. “We are deeply passionate about this, just as much as you are.”

Unlike previous bills dealing with mental health for police officers, SB 278 has nothing to do with workers’ compensation. There is no provision for payment of co-pays, lost wages, or disability, attorney Bob Shea wrote in testimony for the Police Officers Association of CT.

“There is no monetary benefit at all. It simply allows police officers to seek mental health treatment without fear of discipline or termination, and encourages the adoption of policies to make that happen,” Shea wrote.

Danbury Firefighter Lt. Joe Kovalsky said the fire academy doesn’t teach recruits how to accept failures.

“A year ago, I was going to add to that number,” he said. “Before I knew it, every day was the worse day of my life … I wanted the pain to stop, I wanted the depression to go away. I actually believed that my children were going to be better off without me if I was dead and they were going to be able to overcome the grief that I would cause them.”

Instead of killing himself, he called a special treatment center for firefighters. He went there scared, ashamed and embarrassed, but found strength to fight his mental injury. Because of the treatment he received, Kovalsky said he was able to return to his job and become the father and husband he wanted to be.

“I continue to fight that battle every day,” Kovalsky said.

He urged the committee to amend the bill to add firefighters, remove stigma of PTSD and let them know it’s OK to say they’re not OK.

Kris Engstrand, president of the Stamford police union, said all of the protective gear that police wear won’t protect the mind.

“Everything can be bullet-resistant, but your brain is not, and the images that you live with every day, and anybody in the military can say the same, it is haunting. The stuff I live with is haunting, but I tell you I reached out for help. I am living proof that getting help works.”

He said first responders are afraid to ask for help because it looks like a sign of weakness.

“We are supposed to be the superheroes,” Engstrand said. “This law would help exempt police officers from the fear and some of the barriers and stigma that is out there to go get the mental help they need for fear of losing their firearm, which I understand may have to happen until they are clinically cleared. I get that, and we’re all for that. We don’t want sick or injured people going out there, but the automatic suspension of their right to do that prevents them from going to get the help and healing that they need.”