The Chief
December 28, 2001

 

Cop Counselors Warn: Many At Risk for PTSD

Delayed Reaction To WTC May Plague NYPD’s Ranks

By William Van Auken

A group of Emergency Service Unit police officers, the NYPD’s elite, sat in circle with a psychologist and a pair of peer counselors discussing the events of Sept. 11. Asked what he had done and seen that day, one of the cops answered in a gruff, matter-of-fact tone that he saw members from another ESU truck go into one of the towers just before it collapsed and that none of them came back out.

A surge of emotion choked the cop’s voice and he shot the peer counselor what the counselor later described as a “death look” before the question-and-answer session turned to the next officer.

Fear ‘Aftershock’

This session is one of hundreds that have played out on the 13th floor of the fortress-like Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan at the headquarters of POPPA, the Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance.

The organization is working flat-out with NYPD volunteers as well as cops from out of town and even overseas to combat what it fears will prove an aftershock from the World Trade Center disaster even more devastating than the unprecedented loss of 23 officers on Sept. 11 itself.

A substantial portion of the NYPD’s 42,000 uniformed officers, together with a number of the department’s civilian employees, not to mention thousands of firefighters, are at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition first officially diagnosed among returning veterans from the Vietnam War, but found among all people exposed to an overwhelming traumatic event.

Sees Emotional Toll

“No matter what we do there are still going to be considerable numbers out there who are going to be damaged,” said POPPA founder and director William Genet. “I want to be dead wrong about this, but I know I’m not.”

Mr. Genet served as the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association’s Manhattan North trustee for 22 years before retiring from the NYPD to become full-time director of the Members Assistance Program, which was renamed POPPA earlier this year.

He cites chilling statistics from the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building to illustrate the potential dimensions of the problem.

The divorce rate among Oklahoma City cops and other emergency service workers who responded to the disaster increased by 300 percent in its aftermath. Incidents of disciplinary misconduct rose by 80 percent in the Oklahoma City Police Department.

Scary Suicide Rate

There have been 11 suicides recorded among law-enforcement officers and other rescue workers in Oklahoma City. The number accounts for 1-in-29 of those who responded, Mr. Genet said. The percentage, which is staggering in its own right, would produce unimaginable results if extrapolated to the number of cops, firefighters and others who responded to the World Trade Center.

“It’s going to be extremely important that all our members get the opportunity to talk through the enormity of this event,” said PBA President Patrick J. Lynch. “They’ve been on 12-hour tours working without a day off and never have had the opportunity to sit down with their families at the kitchen table or even to talk to their colleagues about what they’ve been through.”

Mr. Lynch agreed that there is the potential for a “huge crisis” in the NYPD in the coming months.

The union, he said, has been working cooperatively with the department to ensure that all police officers are offered assistance.

Required Counseling

Last month, the department unveiled a plan to have all 55,000 of its uniformed and civilian members attend mandatory mental health talks designed to acquaint them with the dangers of PTSD and the resources that are available to help them. The program is funded with a $10 million grant from the Police Foundation and Pfizer, the pharmaceutical conglomerate.

The NYPD has mounted a similar effort to that of POPPA through its Psychological Services Division and Early Intervention Unit.

I’m lucky. In my position, I get to talk all day and I’ve talked my situation through,” said Mr. Lynch, who narrowly escaped being buried in the collapse of the Twin Towers. I’ve told my story a million times on security posts and to other cops at the site.”

The PBA president acknowledged, however, that it remained “a very emotional time” for himself and every police officer. Some of us lost partners or people we were very close to,” he said. “And cops are human beings. You can’t help but thinking, it could have been you; that you could have been the one who walked through the wrong door. The emotional part is thinking what that would mean to your family.”

‘Doing What We Have To’

“We’re still in the mode of doing what we know we have to do,” Mr. Lynch said, insisting that his members are “holding up terrifically” despite the added hours and emotional stress. “If we keep talking about it, we won’t have the kind of problems they had in Oklahoma City.”

Working off a model developed by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Mr. Genet said that most cops involved in the recovery effort remained in a “honeymoon, heroic” stage, in which their emotional lives have remained on autopilot as they focus nearly exclusively on their jobs.

“It’s not a macho thing,” he said. “It’s a professional thing; they have a responsibility; it’s what they’re supposed to do.”

At the same time, however, many of them are at risk for developing PTSD. “It’s like being hit with an invisible bullet, and you don’t know you’re hit,” said Mr. Genet. “The important thing is to overcome the resistance to getting help, to make them aware of this and let them know it’s okay to be unsteady.”

Awareness Crucial

The extent to which they have been made aware of the problem and begun to talk about it will play a major part in determining how they deal with the inevitable flood of emotions that will engulf them once the relentless pace of their current mission subsides.

POPPA confronted a myriad of problems in getting its operation up and running in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Its small office at 40 Fulton St. (it later moved) was left without power or phones, while its volunteers — like all city cops — were placed on 12-hour tours and seven-day weeks, leaving them little time to help others.

In the chaotic days following the Trade Center tragedy, pleas to the NYPD brass to spare some of these officers for the work of peer counseling fell on deaf ears.

Initially, the organization depended heavily on teams of out-of-town cops, some coming from as far away as Winnipeg, Canada and even Norway. Now between six and seven of the NYPD volunteers have been detailed to POPPA full-time, while the effort is regularly staffed by another 15 to 20 cops working on their own time.

Talking It Through

On a busy day, the organization now leads between 60 and 70 cops through a process it describes as “diffusing.” The 45-to-90 minute sessions involve up to nine officers with two peer counselors and a mental health professional. They are encouraged to recount their experiences and reactions to make members of the group aware of their emotions and to see that they are shared by the by their co-workers.

POPPA estimates that it has taken 1,400 officers through this process and believes that the NYPD has held the sessions with at least 1,000 others. The Deputy Commissioner for Public Information did not return calls seeking verification of this estimate.

‘We Don’t Want Any’

The difficulties that the organization confronts in overcoming a police culture in which acknowledging psychological stress and strain has been discouraged either as a sign of weakness or a ticket to losing your gun and badge was illustrated by the initial reaction of the ESU, the elite unit that lost 14 members in the disaster and which continues to work round the clock in the recovery effort.

When cops working as POPPA volunteers first approached the ESU headquarters at Ground Zero, members of the unit roughly turned them away, Mr. Genet recalled. “You Jehovah Witnesses get out of here, we don’t want any,” was the response. Apparently the volunteers were wearing yellow jackets, the same color worn by preachers ranging from ranging from evangelical Christians to members of the Church of Scientology who flooded the site.

Took Several Tries

Only after a second and a third visit, Mr. Genet said, were the ESU cops, whom he described as “the John Waynes of the job,” willing to hear them out. The next day, some of them came to the POPPA office at the Federal Reserve Bank to talk.

While police officers have been exposed to unspeakable horrors, from office workers jumping to their deaths from the upper stories of the Twin Towers on the day of the terrorist attacks, to pulling body parts from debris, or cataloguing them at the morgue, the greatest trauma for cops has been a sense of helplessness, Mr. Genet said.

“They take responsibility for the fact that it happened; they feel they should have been able to stop it," said the POPPA director. Both cops who were at the scene and survived, while their comrades died, and others who were not first responders at the disaster site but felt they should have been there, are wrestling with guilt.

Program Origins

POPPA’s origins date back to 1995, when the NYPD and its unions began to confront the implications of a shocking spike in suicides by police officers over the previous year. The organization was founded to provide peer support, with the conception that cops would accept help from their co-workers if they did not fear that by admitting to a problem they would face the threat of being put on modified duty and seeing their careers ended.

It also established an emergency “helpline” for officers facing serious problems including threats of suicide. The number of calls to the phone number increased from 250 in 1997 to 1,800 in the first nine months of this year.

Over the past few weeks, the organization reports, calls to the helpline (1-888-267-7267) have increased three-fold, virtually all of them directly related to the trauma of the Trade Center disaster.