The global prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues have risen since the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s taking its toll on the police who safeguard state parks and universities.
Members of the state Police Benevolent Association are tasked with rescuing people in need in state forests or campuses. At times, that means helping someone thinking of or attempting to take their own life.
Robert Praczkajlo, a state forest ranger of 22 years, recounted helping to search for a woman early in his career. She died by suicide after stabbing herself multiple times in a state forest next to a large oak tree.
Recalling the incident quickly brought him to tears.
“It was so hard to really understand,” he said, adding he was afraid of the dark for a period of time afterward. “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know the family. It was just really, really difficult.”
It’s been nearly two decades, but the grievance lives on in the hearts of the responding officers.
“The firemen who see crazy things, they see people burn, they were messed up in the head,” Praczkajlo recalled. “Their reaction in the woods was just they were screaming. … I was messed up. I was new and didn’t talk to anybody.”
Park police in the Niagara region in Western New York, which includes Niagara Falls, regularly respond to people in distress contemplating dying by suicide — something that’s become nearly a weekly call since the pandemic.
“It draws people in because it’s just so beautiful,” said Hayley Boland, a state park police officer in the state’s Niagara region. “It seems like we do get a lot of people that come there to end their lives.”
A 14-year-old boy died by suicide at the Niagara Falls Gorge this spring. A woman drove her car into the water last December, Boland said.
Officers frequently push through it, working hard to remain strong for the family of the person.
“Everybody kind of deals with it differently,” Boland added. “You kind of almost have to stay strong for the family because they’re going to need your support.”
People who plan to harm themselves often head into the woods for several days—typically dying by suicide through an overdose on prescription medications or other substances, by hanging or jumping from a cliff.
“Sometimes, you get the time of death from the coroner and you’re like, ‘Man, we were already searching for them… We just didn’t find them, yet,'” Praczkajlo said.
Suicide attempts are most common in teens and young adults who can leave notes, their keys or wallet behind as crumbs for officers to find.
It’s a topic that’s difficult, but becoming normalized, to discuss.
“If you need help, seek the help that you need,” said Jeffrey Eckert, a Niagara region park police officer.
He noted the changing culture among law enforcement and first responders to talk about a traumatizing call.
“They used to say ‘Don’t talk about it, kid,'” Eckert said. “…[but] it’s become more recognized to get help as the right way to handle it rather than keeping it inside and letting it all build up.”
Officers say most other calls that end in successful rescues make the job worthwhile. It’s not uncommon for police to talk someone away from the edge of the rocks or water and save their life and calling the professional help they need.
University police have also seen an uptick in mental health calls as law enforcement were linked on early in the pandemic when most other industries closed.
“We were really the first on scene for maybe even things that wouldn’t be a police call,” said Caitlin Clark, a university police PBA member. “But they didn’t have anyone else.”
It’s taking its toll on PBA officers — impacting their already dire staffing crisis.
Chris Kostoss, a forest ranger who helped educate DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos and PBA police about mental health law, died by suicide this spring after receiving mental health treatment for more than a decade.
Kostoss was one of Praczkajlo’s closest friends and is working to remember his beloved friend’s legacy in continuing mental health education for law enforcement.
“Here’s an amazing guy, an incredible ranger, who just couldn’t take it anymore because of his job … and the other stresses he had in his life,” Praczkajlo said.
He advised: “Seek the most, the best, professional help that you can find and do not wait ’til it’s too late.”
Members have access to mental health assistance through the state police Employee Assistance Program. Many officers Friday said they feel uncomfortable to use the available crisis peer mentoring program to speak with their fellow officers.
HAS bill to reform the PBA’s retirement system to 20 years from 25 is waiting for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s signing. About 97% of law enforcement in the state can retire after 20 years. PBA police are among the handful of exceptions, forced to work another five years.
Kostos’ death by suicide happened after more than 22 years of service. Union members said it’s an example of why they need to retire after 20 years on the job when other police do.
Hochul’s office Friday said she’s reviewing the legislation and would not answer questions about the 25-year retirement policy’s ties to officer mental health crises.
PBA advocates say it’s unlikely she’ll sign the measure before the gubernatorial election Nov. 8.
Union reps recently met with Gov. Hochul’s staff to provide statistics about the bill to reform the PBA’s retirement system.