Newark NJ March 26 2012 When police officer Christopher Matlosz was executed in broad daylight while on routine patrol on Jan. 14, 2011, shock and grief extended well beyond his family to the 119 members of the Lakewood Police Department.
“When you have an officer killed the way Chris Matlosz was — he was pretty much assassinated, he didn’t stand a chance — it’s just like a member of your family is killed,” Lakewood Police Chief Robert Lawson said.
The emotions go beyond grief and despair, he said.
“It shatters your own image of invulnerability, which you need, or you couldn’t do your job,” Lawson said.
Typically, police officers, to preserve their tough image, keep emotions to themselves, he said. But after Matlosz was executed, members of the Lakewood department were encouraged to open up and talk about their feelings to counselors from Cop2Cop, a Piscataway-based organization designed to help officers in crisis.
First in nation
Cop2Cop, the first program of its kind in the nation, is run by University Behavioral HealthCare at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The program operates a 24-hour crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline for law-enforcement officers.
The hotline is manned by retired officers, who are trained in stress management and who provide clinical assessments and referrals to those who call in. Some of the retirees are clinicians with degrees in social work or counseling.
The organization takes credit for preventing 189 police suicides since its call center opened in November 2000.
In addition, the organization – with a staff of 16 and an annual budget of $400,000 funded by forfeited bails and surcharges on traffic tickets — provides training to active law-enforcement officers on how to recognize whether their colleagues are suicidal or in crisis.
Cop2Cop runs a group for wounded officers. It also provides what is called critical incident stress management to officers and their families after traumatic incidents, such as a police shooting or an officer’s death. Since its inception, Cop2Cop has conducted more than 700 group debriefings, said Cherie Castellano, program director.
We send a team, a crisis response group, to talk and to help officers normalize their experiences with traumatic incidents,” Castellano said.
After Matlosz’s murder, Cop2Cop counselors descended upon Lakewood for a few weeks to counsel the grief-stricken police force, Lawson said.
Some of the emotions making the rounds in the department were anger and guilt, explained Lakewood officer Gary Przewoznik, president of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 71. Przewoznik said many of his fellow officers were asking themselves, “Why couldn’t I be there to stop this from happening?”
What made the members of the Lakewood force more comfortable discussing their emotions about Matlosz’s death was the fact that they were talking to members the law-enforcement brotherhood, according to Lawson and Przewoznik.
“They made us feel more comfortable because they are cops,” Przewoznik said. “Officers put up a shield. We can’t let the public see that we’re human, but we are.
“We were talking to other cops about what we were going through,” Przewoznik said. “Everybody was feeling the same thing, but nobody else wanted to come out and say it. … It was good to be able to vent and talk about how you felt with your peers, and see that everybody felt the same way.”
Lawson said he mandated the group counseling for the entire department after Matlosz’s murder because police officers tend to have a “macho” attitude that they don’t need help, when they do.
“Who better to understand what a police officer goes through than someone who has done it?” the chief said, adding that he also availed himself of the counseling.
Matlosz’s killer – Jahmell Crockam, 20, of Lakewood – was sentenced Thursday to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
“Now we can close that chapter and start the healing process,” Przewoznik said after the sentencing.
Cop2Cop is the only program mandated by a state law to provide suicide prevention and mental health services to the state’s more than 50,000 law-enforcement officers, according to Castellano. Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, sponsored the legislation that created the program in 1998 after a rash of police suicides in the Monmouth County area, Castellano said.
It became a model for programs like it, not only in the state, but throughout the country,” Kyrillos said, pointing out that the spinoffs in New Jersey include hotlines for veterans, mothers and a national hotline based in New Jersey for military personnel.
Kyrillos said he got the idea for the legislation from John McGuire, who retired as chief of the Shrewsbury police force in 1993 and was Cop2Cop’s first director.
McGuire said the hotline, at its inception, was a tough sell. He went to every police department in the state trying to market it and was told, “Nobody’s ever going to call your line,” he recalled.
“Cops only talk to other cops and bartenders,” McGuire explained. “Then you realize there are retired cops out there who are therapists.”
Since the call center opened, its counselors have fielded more than 30,000 telephone calls, said Castellano, an expert in crisis intervention for law enforcement and is married to a detective with the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office.
Three callers committed suicide after calling the hotline. But, she said, “We have had 189 rescues, where officers had guns to their heads, overdosed or barricaded themselves.”
Joseph Orgo, a retired Newark police officer and licensed social worker who resides in Brielle, had a hand in saving two of those officers.
“One person called me and said, ‘I’m in the closet of this (police) department, and I have my gun to my head,’ ” Orgo recalled of a phone call he fielded in 2004.
Orgo said he contacted the caller’s captain, who went and found the suicidal officer in the closet.
“There he was with his gun, and he got the help he needed,” Orgo said.
Many of the people who call the hotline are not suicidal, according to Castellano. Some have had traumatic experiences on the job, disagreements with their bosses or their spouses, financial difficulties or drinking problems, she said.
Gun in mouth
Roy Diaz, a Millstone Township resident and retired lieutenant from the homicide unit of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, carried around a secret for decades, he said.
In 1988, while in the midst of a custody battle for his three boys, “I was sitting in an apartment in Elizabeth with a gun in my mouth,” Diaz said.
“I did try to call people’s beepers, but it was a Friday afternoon, and no one returned my calls,” Diaz said.
What stopped him from pulling the trigger, he said, was the thought of who would take care of his boys, whom he eventually got custody of.
Diaz, however, has had six friends in law-enforcement who succeeded in killing themselves.
“I don’t want any of my friends to die. I don’t want any cop to die,” said Diaz, who is another of Cop2Cop’s peer counselors.
“I think I have a lot to offer somebody who’s on the line. I suffered through depression, anxiety, and at 37, had a heart attack from the stress of the job. I think I have something to give back.”
He did several months ago, when he received his first call from a suicidal officer.
“He had a plan, and we talked ourselves through it,” Diaz said. “The person is still here and working. I didn’t foil a bank robbery, but I saved a guy’s life by being there.”