The Norwalk police officer had seen more than her share of gruesome and heartbreaking suicides, including those of colleagues on the force and a man who begged the officer to shoot him just hours before he walked out of a hospital and leapt to his death.
Many times, she had tried to intervene before the life was lost, and then would take it upon herself to try to help family members and fellow officers deal with the tragedy when it inevitably occurred, Norwalk Sgt. Sofia Gulino said Tuesday at a legislative hearing called to explore mental health issues facing police.
But after bottling up her own grief over a period of years and being terrified at the thought of revealing it to others in uniform, the officer developed high-blood pressure and depression, and suffered a panic attack that finally made her seek help and agree to start taking antidepressant medication and focus on her own well-being.
“This officer bit off more than she could chew, or should chew, on her own,” Gulino said before revealing, “That officer was me.”
“I knew that the problems were going to keep coming and that I would keep trying to put people onto my own lifeboat and that eventually without any help my lifeboat would sink,” Gulino continued. “I consider myself one of the luckier ones. The law enforcement community is clearly struggling and needs help.”
Gulino’s experience was perhaps the most dramatic relayed during the two-hour-plus video hearing designed to give the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee insight that is expected to lead to legislation in the General Assembly session that starts today at the Capitol.
Committee co-chair Maria Horn, D-Salisbury, told Gulino that her account is a too-rare example in a profession known for its reluctance to show what may be perceived as weakness by seeking mental-health assistance for job-related stress that often sparks problems such as substance abuse and suicide.
“The stories you tell are why we are here,” Horn said. “For you to share your own personal story is deeply important for us to hear, but also to be an example of the willingness to stand up and tell that story to this group because it’s the path forward. Shining a light on it and beginning to address this is critically important.”
State police Commissioner James Rovella was scheduled to testify, but was unexpectedly called to a budget meeting, said his assistant, Brian Foley.
The hearing featured testimony from police officers, administrators, mental health counselors and psychologists who spoke of the need not only for police to acknowledge the issue, but to make more services available to help those afflicted move forward in a positive fashion.
One of the main obstacles to police getting help, panelists said, is the stigma and fear that other officers or supervisors will find out and have less trust in that officer’s ability to handle the job.
“A successful approach to this problem is to provide accessibility to a completely confidential program,” said state Trooper Rodney Valdes, a chaplain who coordinates various mental-health and wellness initiatives including the State Troopers Offering Peer Support, or STOPS program, that employs about 70 volunteer troopers to assist fellow troopers in overcoming professional and personal trauma. “We are trying to cultivate an environment where voluntarily seeking help is seen as a sign of strength rather than a weakness.”
The inherent stress of working in law enforcement, several panelists said, has been amplified by the pandemic and a widespread shortage of police officers due to a large number retirements and other factors such the recent emergence of what many police consider anti-police laws and rhetoric from some politicians and segments of the public.
Dr. Mark Kirschner, a psychologist with Behavioral Health Consultants that provides services to nearly 50 police departments in Connecticut, said he has assessed more than 1,000 officers to gauge their response to the 2020 police-accountability bill decried by many officers as onerously constrictive.
“The restrictions and their feeling of inability to do their job and the struggle that they face with interacting with public perceptions and the whole accountability issue – those are significant impact issues in terms of mental health of our officers,” Kirschner said.
Chronic understaffing has led to the widespread use of “order-ins,” he said, under which officers are required to stay on duty for a second or even third consecutive shift because of a lack of manpower.
“It’s creating burnout, in some of our younger officers especially, because they are literally being held over three and four and five days in a row working 16-hour shifts,” Kirschner said. “That obviously has a significant impact on their cognitive processing and their decision-making. We’re asking officers to make split-second, life-and-death decisions and doing that in a sleep-deprived state. It’s one thing if you want to do it – it’s another thing if you’re forced to do it and don’t want to do it.”
New Haven police Lt. Michael Fumiatti said that the increasingly tense and negative environment is not being met by a corresponding growth in ways to help officers deal with it.
He regularly speaks to groups of officers about the situation through his role with the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement, which offers various training and peer-counseling programs.
He says there remains a significant lack of knowledge among police about the mental and physical effects of “what’s happening to their bodies as a result of the trauma and the things that they experience at work.”
“We’re more likely than anyone else in the population to have high blood pressure, hypertension, depression, diabetes – you name it,” he said. “The average age that we live to is 57-years-old. This job is killing our officers. There is no doubt about it.”