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NJ Launches Nation's First Law Enforcement Stress Management Program Amid Police Suicide Rise

“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."
“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." Photo Credit: Jerry DeMarco

Amid a nationwide rise in police suicides – including 37 in New Jersey in just the past three years – the Garden State’s top lawman announced the creation of the country’s first law enforcement training program in stress management.

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal issued the “Officer Resiliency Directive” requiring all state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies to designate a specifically trained officer who can train colleagues in coping with the unique stressors of their jobs.

The New Jersey Resiliency Program for Law Enforcement (“NJRP-LE”) will directly address issues that, left unchecked, “may lead to physical ailments, depression, and burnout,” Grewal said Tuesday.

“We cannot fully comprehend the emotional and mental stress that our law enforcement officers suffer on a daily basis,” the attorney general said. “We can no longer allow them to suffer in silence.

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

Police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, a recent white paper commissioned by the philanthropic Ruderman Family Foundation found.

According to Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit organization that tracks and monitors law enforcement suicides, at least 167 officers died by suicide last year, more than the total number of line-of-duty deaths.

“These statistics are believed to be conservative because law enforcement suicides have been historically underreported,” Grewal noted.

In addition to self-harm, job stress also “puts law enforcement officers at a higher risk for health- and social-related issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, substance misuse, family and relationship stress,” he said.

The NJRP-LE aims to “change a culture in which officers are often reluctant to seek help for work-related stress,” the attorney general said. “The program fosters an environment that encourages officers to communicate with each other and with their families.”

Because people learn resiliency through experience, the NJRP-LE promotes and encourages a “growth mindset,” as opposed to a restrictive “fixed mindset,” said Grewal, a former federal and Bergen County prosecutor from Glen Rock.

Rather than “spiraling down,” officers are shown techniques and services that help them to “spiral up” and meet day-to-day challenges – emphasizing strengths instead of weaknesses, he said.

The directive requires every law enforcement officer in the state to receive the two-day NJRP-LE training -- with a mix of lectures and practical exercises -- by the end of 2022.

It also protects the confidentiality of communications between law enforcement officers and their Resiliency Program Officer (RPO) .

Officers will get a list of all RPOs throughout the state, giving them the option to speak to one outside of their department, Grewal said.

The NJRP-LE isn’t meant to replace current employee assistance or the highly successful “Cop2Cop” program, but, rather, to expand the safety net for all officers, “not just those in crisis or need,” the attorney general said.

“As the director of Cop2Cop for 20 years and the wife of a law enforcement professional, I firmly believe this innovative program provides a much needed service that our police community deserves,” said Cherie Castellano.

“Law enforcement suicide prevention is fostered by building strength, as well as by responding to crisis needs,” Castellano said. “This project will create a needed continuum of law enforcement peer support.

“Resiliency officers in every community will partner to hand off to Cop2Cop for telephone-based peer support with our retired officer peer counselors and clinicians ensuring assessment and referral to our Cop2Cop provider network.

“In addition, we can refer our Cop2Cop callers to a Resiliency Officer from their community who can meet with them face-to-face. Both options offer ongoing peer support and a strength-based approach to preserving our most precious resource in New Jersey-our law enforcement officers,” she said.

Law enforcement representatives welcomed the initiative.

“In its purest sense, this directive acknowledges and recognizes the dangers our law enforcement officers face on a daily basis and will be added to the tool box of programs already in place to protect our officers,” said Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association.

“It is quickly forgotten by the public how dealing with tragedies, such as our last two recent ones, in El Paso and Dayton, will haunt these officers during their careers and have lasting effects on them and their families,” added Robert W. Fox, president of the New Jersey State Fraternal Order of Police. “This program is well overdue to protect our officers that protect our citizens every day.”

Grewal said he’s chosen Robert Czepiel, the chief of the Prosecutors Supervision and Training Bureau in the Division of Criminal Justice, to oversee the new program as the state’s first-ever Chief Resiliency Officer.

“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 state Division of Criminal Justice Director Veronica Allende. “Our goal is to teach law enforcement officers how to recognize and manage that stress to remain mentally healthy and avoid going down a dark hole.”

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