Police officers who have suffered through the suicide of a family member and the widow of a State Police captain implored lawmakers on Thursday to get behind a bill to require mental wellness and suicide prevention training for police personnel.
Six Massachusetts police officers have already taken their own lives so far this year, according to Karen Solomon, founder of police mental health awareness group Blue HELP. In 2016, five officers killed themselves in Massachusetts, versus two killed in the line of duty.
“Suicide kills more officers every year than homicides or accidents. H 2496 is a response to this hidden danger,” bill sponsor Rep. James Lyons said.
Lyons’ bill, filed with Rep. Timothy Whelan, would require a two-hour course be added to all police training schools to teach officers how to “utilize healthy coping skills to manage the stress and trauma of policing ... recognize the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder within themselves and other officers ... and recognize the signs of suicidal behavior within themselves and other officers,” according to the bill text.
“As police officers, we are expected to handle society’s problems for 16 hours a day sometimes only to return home to deal with our own, our lives often burdened during our own tours of duty,” Chelsea Police Lieutenant David Betz said.
Nine months ago, Betz responded to the suicide of his 24-year-old son, David. Betz said that even though he has been trained to identify certain behaviors in people and be aware of a person’s mindset, he had no way of knowing what his son had been going through.
Somerville Police Captain Michael Cabral told the Joint Committee on Public Service and Homeland Security about the day in 1991 when his mother called and said his father, a sergeant in the Middlesex Sheriff’s Department, returned home and was crying. His mother became nervous when she found an empty holster and his father, who Cabral later learned was concerned he could lose his job, left the house telling her, “Please tell the kids I love them.”
Cabral rushed home and found his father in a ballfield where he had taught him to play baseball, his gun in his hand.
“My dad said, ‘Mike, go back, go back,’ and I said, ‘Dad, don’t do this please,’” Cabral told the committee. “He then put the gun to his head and took his life. So I have had to live with that for 26 years of my life.”
Cabral, whose own son is now a police officer himself, said he supports Lyons’ bill because he feels that his father felt like he had nowhere to turn for help.
“I honestly believe that if there had been some type of training, some employee assistance that my father was aware of ... I wish somehow there was an opportunity for him to get help,” he said.
Janice McCarthy told the committee about her husband Paul, a State Police captain, who took his own life in 2006. She said he had been hit by a stolen bus a year earlier and dealt with PTSD ever since. Before he died, McCarthy said, he wrote a memo on State Police stationary detailing what he saw as the shortcomings of how the State Police dealt with troopers’ mental health.
“The reality is my children’s lives and mine will be forever affected by Paul’s suicide. We need to listen to Paul’s words in his memo and institute training to help our officers and their families,” Janice McCarthy said. “We have the opportunity to do just that with H 2496. We have the opportunity to save lives.”
A handful of lawmakers expressed support Thursday for Lyons’ bill, including the longtime chief of the Salem Police Department.
“We know what the suicide rates are for police. We know they’re exponentially higher than others in civilian life,” Rep. Paul Tucker said. “We know that if something is predictable it’s preventable and hopefully we can get this done.”