Police mobilize to support NYC peers

When a police officer is in trouble, he shouts "10-13" into his radio, and can expect help from fellow officers, sirens screaming, in minutes.

Now, in the wake of Sept. 11, police from around the world are responding to what they see as a "Big 10-13" by New York City's finest. In this case, the call is for peer counseling - brother-in-blue-to-brother-in-blue talks.

The visiting officers are meeting with a police force that has virtually been through a war: Twenty-three officers died in the collapse of the World Trade Center, and thousands more were involved in wrenching front-line duties, such as pulling out bodies.

The volunteer counselors hope to arrest any tendencies toward alcoholism, spousal abuse, or even suicide - all of which became serious concerns after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The sessions are sometimes emotional, with police taking off their stoic masks and talking about emotions that have been tightly buttoned inside the uniform. In some cases, it's the first time the officers have been able to let down their reserve since Sept. 11.

"We want them to leave feeling that everything can get back to normal as much as it can," says Mike Haley, a retired police officer who has made the trip from Clinton Township, Ohio, to the Big Apple four times.

Behind the effort is a New York group called Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA). Its offices were opened in March 1996 after police suicides in the city skyrocketed over a two-year period.

After training, 50 police officers began manning a 24-hour hot line to help any colleague who called in. The first year, the group, then called Member Assistance Program, received 250 calls. Even before Sept. 11 last year, the rate had grown to 1,500 calls per year.

"The clinical people figure we have prevented about 40 suicides total, or about eight a year," says Bill Genet, a retired member of the New York Police Department and founder of the group.

Now, the organization is girding for possibly more problems: In the past several weeks, their number of serious cases - which may involve hospitalization - has tripled. "We're at the [the point where] these things may begin to manifest themselves," Mr. Genet says.

Immediately after the September attack, he began to mobilize his troops to try to help his fellow officers. Since so many police were involved, he put out a call to out-of-town departments. In came officers from such places as Niagara, Ontario; Story County, Iowa; Ord Valley, Ariz.; and Durham, N.C. A team from Norway is scheduled for later this month.

Within days of the attack, 20 to 25 officers - clad in jackets emblazoned with POPPA - walked over to ground zero and began handing out brochures. Says Genet, "What happened is that a South Carolina boy would say in his Southern accent, 'Hi, I'm a cop from South Carolina,' and the cop automatically said, 'Wow, what are you doing here?' The Southern policeman would reply, 'I'm here because I care about you, and we'd like you to come over and pay us a visit.'"

So far, more than 1,600 police have gone over to the POPPA offices, which are in the fortress-like office of the New York Federal Reserve in the downtown area. It's definitely not the Spartan-like police headquarters: One wall is decorated with colorful shoulder patches from the visiting police departments. On another hangs a Canadian flag signed by the team from Niagara.

Because the program is not part of the police bureaucracy, Genet says the officers feel like they can be more open. There is no risk that the talks will show up on a performance review or be considered at promotion time. In addition, POPPA does not do psychoanalysis, leaving that to professionals.

In a typical session, Genet describes how a policeman, talking about what he did on Sept. 11, just stops in the middle of an innocuous sentence. "He just welled up, stopped, and gave me a death stare. I just stopped, said, 'Thank you very much,' and turned to the next guy." He adds, "If he wanted to go further, that was fine, but it was clear he wasn't going to. We don't invade."

But getting those feelings out can be crucial to well-being, says Jack Herrmann, coordinator for the University of Rochester (N.Y.) Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide. "Early on, they are taught not to react to emotion to achieve an end," says Mr. Herrmann, who has warned the NYPD and other emergency services to actively address the issue of suicide.

Police, firefighters, and other law-enforcement officials experience a higher rate of suicide than the general population. This is in part because they deal, close up, with some of life's most tragic and brutal conditions. Many, too, harbor a deep sense of responsibility about protecting the public, which, when things go awry, can engender feelings of futility.

For many of the out-of-town police, the experience of helping the NYPD has been one of the most difficult - and rewarding - things they have ever done. That's the case for Detective Lt. Charlie Larson from Mitchell, S.D., who was part of a police group that arrived in mid-December.

He recalls a lot of emotions in the first group they debriefed. Now, Mitchell's police force is considering a second visit. "We care about our brothers and sisters in law enforcement," he says, "and we want them to survive."

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