Police, towns clash over mental health treatment
HARTFORD — A movement to provide police officers and firefighters with mental health treatment for trauma suffered while doing their job is hitting a wall of opposition from towns and cities worried about costs.
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said a bill before the Senate that provides lengthy leaves of absence to treat Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome could cost towns and cities millions of dollars a year.
"No state funding is included in the bill," O’Leary said. "It would be a costly unfunded mandate."
But supporters say police and first responders often encounter horrific scenes — such as the Bridgeport incident last year when an officer shot and killed a 15-year-old boy — and need the protection and treatment mandated by the bill.
"We have to remember that mental health should be a priority along with physical health," said state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and a co-sponsor of the legislation.
The bill before the General Assembly would allow police officers suffering from PTSD or other disorders related to “critical incidents” while doing their job to take paid leave for up to a year.
The bill requires the state to develop and maintain a list of at least 30 mental health providers with training in PTSD and prohibits municipalities from disciplining or firing a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical service worker because they sought or received mental health treatment.
The legislation easily passed the General Assembly’s Public Safety and Security Committee and is now before the Senate.
The state’s larger cities — Bridgeport, New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury — experience shootings and horrific incidents on a regular basis.
Last year, Bridgeport police officer James Boulay felt he had no choice but to shoot at teenager Jayson Negron after the teenager struck him with his car while trying to escape capture. Boulay opened fire, killing Negron and wounding a passenger.
Boulay was later cleared of wrongdoing but such incidents can leave officers and first responders with lingering mental trauma that requires long term treatment.
Av Harris, a spokesman for Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim, a Democrat running for governor, said the mayor supports mental health treatment for police and first responders — but does not support placing those costs on towns and cities.
"What we should not do is to shoulder that burden alone,” Harris said. “This could easily be millions of dollars per year for Bridgeport alone."
Harris said a “more realistic scenario” would be to create a fund of money contributed by municipalities and the state to cover mental health expenses and “help municipalities defray the cost of staffing up to fill in for firefighters and police officers impacted by work related trauma and on temporary leave."
CCM said the bill incorrectly assumes that little or no emotional support systems are in place for first responders.
"Most municipalities have Employee Assistance Programs for employees suffering from mental or emotional impairments," CCM officials said in a statement.
"These benefits provide employees access to counseling, therapy and other essential services to assist them — and their families — during difficult periods," according to CCM.
“Seek out help”
Rebecca St. George, a Naugatuck police officer, said in November 2017 she lost her brother, police officer Robert "Tommy" Byrne, to suicide.
Byrne was an 11-year veteran with the Naugatuck police department, a U.S. Army veteran and father, she said.
"The reason Tommy took his own life wasn’t solely because he was a police officer, but it certainly was a factor," St. George told the legislature’s public safety committee during a recent public hearing on the bill.
Hartford Police Union President John Szewczyk said that nationally police suicides are at an all-time high, reaching 140 last year.
"We urge [passage of the bill] so police officers will receive the proper treatment and mental health services when needed," he said.