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Queens Chronicle

Laurelton cop ninth NYPD suicide in ’19

Family, officers say the city doesn’t have enough mental health support

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Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2019 10:30 am

“How did this happen?”

A Facebook friend of veteran NYPD Officer Robert Echeverria posted the question on his page after the officer from Laurelton on Aug. 14 became the ninth member of the NYPD to take his own life this year.

Echeverria, 56, was off duty at his home at about 6:20 p.m. when his wife called 911.

He was the second officer to kill himself in two days. Officer Johnny Rios, 35, shot himself in the head in his Yonkers home on Tuesday.

Echeverria’s sister, Eileen, and Pat Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said it happened because of a department and a city that have turned a blind eye to cops in crisis, and betray those who do seek assistance.

“It’s an epic failure,” Eileen Echeverria told CBS Channel 2. “They’re responsible. They don’t want police officers to get help.”

Echeverria in multiple interviews said her brother was visibly in crisis and in serious financial straits. She says he ignored her attempts to get private counseling outside of the NYPD network because he feared reassignment to a desk position if the department found out.

She contacted the NYPD with her concerns multiple times, the last time just over two months ago, leading to confiscation of his guns and a mandatory checkup with a department doctor. He passed.

“Two months later my brother killed himself,” she said.

Lynch, in an appeal viewed on the PBA’s website, implored cops to help themselves and each other.

“If you’re on the edge and are contemplating suicide, don’t f--king do it!” Lynch said. “It solves nothing, and it leaves devastation behind you.”

Lynch said it is time for city leaders to stop paying lip service in the wake of the rash of suicides in the NYPD’s ranks. He said the city must improve its medical insurance benefits so they meet the cost of top-of-the line mental health professionals — a report published since Echeverria’s death said the existing benefits can pay as little as one-fourth of a top doctor’s regular fee.

City and NYPD officials have said in the last week that is a work in progress.

Lynch also lent credence to Echeverria’s fears that seeking help would jeopardize his job if his superiors found out.

“Stop destroying the careers of cops who reach out for help,” Lynch said.

Joseph Imperatrice is an active-duty law enforcement sergeant and the founder of Blue Lives Matter, a fraternal organization that is unaffiliated with the NYPD.

Imperatrice said the normal stresses of the job can be exacerbated by stress at home in an officer’s family life, financial problems, illness and other factors.

“There’s also the stigma attached to asking for help,” he said.

Imperatrice believes the suicide of Deputy Chief Steven Silks — an accomplished 38-year veteran — in June may have had a domino effect on members of the NYPD who already might have been on the edge.

“He was retiring, he had a ton of money in the bank and he made the decision to end his life,” he said.

Silks shot himself in his car on Burns Street in Forest Hills. He had reached mandatory retirement age and was days from leaving the job.

Echeverria’s death, coming only about 24 hours after that of Rios, brought to light a controversial decision by the de Blasio administration to pull out of a mental health forum originally scheduled for this past Monday night in Staten Island that was sponsored by the office of Councilman Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island) and Blue Lives Matter, and hosted by an SI community board.

Borelli, in a telephone interview with the Chronicle last week, said ThriveNYC, the citywide mental health initiative run by first lady Chirlane McCray, initially was on board to provide counselors for the Aug. 19 session — until the Blue Lives Matter logo was seen on a workup of a flier being proposed for the event.

“They don’t want to be associated with an event that includes Blue Lives Matter,” Borelli said last Thursday.

But a chain of emails provided to the Chronicle between Frank Mascia of Borelli’s staff and City Hall show that Blue Lives Matter was known to be involved with the meeting at least as early as June 27.

“Works for us!” began an email to Borelli’s office from City Hall.

When the problem arose, the councilman said, he was first told that ThriveNYC officials said they did not put their logo on event fliers with other logos.

“Googlably false,” he told the Chronicle.

De Blasio last week said Borelli could have cleared up any confusion immediately by calling him directly before going to the press. In the text of a press conference emailed from his office, the mayor called Borelli a liar.

“I’m saying he’s playing a game, it’s a lie and of course we would have mental health first aid with that organization,” the mayor said. “The question was whether it was for a limited group of people or for the general public. That’s what brought up the issue.”

“This was an event sponsored by a councilman’s office and hosted by a community board,” Borelli said. “On what planet is that not an open event?”

The Chronicle did learn that more than 8,000 NYPD staff have been trained in mental health first aid, and the NYPD budget for fiscal year 2020 includes $5.3 million for crisis intervention training.

Asked in an email for a response to Borelli’s comments last week, de Blasio’s office sent a statement from Susan Herman, director of the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC, in an email sent at 9:52 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 16.

“Thrive did not cancel the training with Council Member Borelli’s office — we have said repeatedly that we would be happy to bring mental health first aid training to whomever he wants to train. Thrive has been deeply involved in developing the NYPD’s comprehensive suicide prevention strategy for officers and will hold nine Mental Health First Aid trainings for each Patrol Borough in the next month.”

In response to a followup email from the Chronicle, ThriveNYC said the room listed on the flier was no longer available and that officials were trying to identify a location for the training “next week.”

Borelli the day before told the Chronicle that the meeting was in fact canceled.

“They have no venue and they’ll have no cops,” he said.

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