Peer and Now

Members can count on peers to be there for them

By Mitchell Krugel

The pathway of peer proliferation has led to moments like this past Easter morning at the Orange Police Department. Actually, it was really the middle of the night when that horrible incident of the officer taking his own life occurred.

At 1 a.m. on April 9, Summit Local 55 State Delegate Mike Freeman and Verona Local 72 State Delegate Ed Carattini were on the scene as members of the PBA Peer Response Team. Here was the peer team providing almost indescribable support and comfort as it is wont to do. Almost like throwing an arm around members in Orange and just being there when it mattered most.

“We’re there at any time of day or night when they need us, just to make sure that everybody was together and make sure everybody understood they are not alone,” related Freeman, who has been there following officers taking their own lives on several occasions. “Being able to give that to somebody else, particularly a police officer, I understand what they’re going through. And by being there to provide resources for our membership, we have no problem doing that. It will always be available.”

The pathway to being there as one of the PBA members on the PBA’s new Peer Response Team confirms just how ready, willing and
able this peer group is.

Like Berkeley Township Local 237 State Delegate Chris Schick, who is in recovery and, thanks to the help from the PBA, has been sober for six years.

Or Cumberland County Sheriff’s Officers Local 299 member Beverly Dragotta, who has been the mental health officer in her department, and really the entire county, for 12 years.

Or Roselle Park Local 27 State Delegate Greg Polakowski, who was so moved by the support from the peer team when one of his members took his own life that he has been dedicated to paying it forward ever since.

These brothers’ and sisters’ keepers on the Peer Response Team are truly keepers. They are blessed with peer-severance and are committed to the peer-spiration required to guide members to take advantage of the services and spread the mantra PBA Peer Response Team Coordinator Luke Sciallo has established: that it’s OK to not be OK.

“We’re all pretty well versed and trained in this, and we all have our own stories, but everybody can relate,” Schick proclaims about his fellow peers. “I try to, personally, just spread the word that it’s OK to get help. We’ll get you through it. It’s going to take work, but we’re going to help you. And we’re going to be there, not only to support you, but to guide you.”

Dragotta had been getting the peer experience well before then-Executive Vice President Marc Kovar asked her to join the peer team a few years ago. Whenever an officer in Cumberland County needed some help, they would call her.

Healing Hint: “It’s not a stigma like it used to be. And just because you’re in law enforcement, you shouldn’t be looked down on for taking care of yourself.”
Beverly Dragotta, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Officers Local 299

From there, Dragotta learned how to navigate the system. She has seen how powerful it can be when members don’t have to make a thousand phone calls to get help and wait for a response while they’re in crisis. And how that need continues to grow.

“Officers are constantly alert and constantly on guard, and we don’t get to have that relaxed moment,” Dragotta explained. “So to have the outlet of reaching out to our professionals and the professionals on our team is amazing. Because even if it’s a quick 15 minutes, hey, this is what I need to get off my back, it gives you somebody who you know is going to listen.”

And with her peer experience, Dragotta can relate what makes the new Peer Response Team even more important to members.

“A lot of times when someone in crisis, they don’t want to talk to someone within their department because they’re scared of getting in trouble,” she added. “So this new peer response team gives them access to reach out without going through someone in their department. It’s not really the department’s issue. It’s the individual’s issue. It’s OK to not be OK, and this makes it more OK to get help.”

Wildwood Local 59 State Delegate Mike Szemcsak answered the call to become a peer because of the opportunity to bring his never- ending passion to the cause. If any State Delegate has a problem with a chief standing in the way of getting help for a member, call Szemcsak. He will be the first one to tell the department where to go.

He especially wants to lend his peer-sistance to younger officers, confirming to them how unnatural it is to see what they see on the job. Getting the message to members when they are young can be formidable in addressing one of the peer team’s greatest challenges.

“We’re trying to get to them when they’re fresh, so we don’t have this pandemic of cops killing themselves,” Szemcsak declared.

He adds that the peer team will be out there spreading another message that it’s OK to have a messed-up day and to not let members think that is a sign of weakness.

“You can say we’re [weak] because we talk about our feelings,” Szemcsak began. “We don’t give a s—. Because we’ve proved that it’s OK to just open up to your feelings.”

And, he has one more point to make about how the peer team can address another barrier members might be feeling.

“It’s just great because there’s doctors that will help us,” Szemcsak added. “We bitch about our healthcare costs going up, but hey, here’s a service that’s paid for from our healthcare. So it’s just easier and quicker, and it’s something that we’ve used that’s worked.”

Healing Hint: “People can just call us and talk to us. If they’re having a bad day or they’re going through rough times, we’ll be able to help them, and it’s confidential.”
Chris Schick, Berkeley Township Local 237

When Polakowski and Local 27 members grieved through the suicide of one of their own, he said the outpouring of love and support from PBA peers inspired him to help others through difficult times. Since becoming a peer, he has not only experienced how they are the bridge between members and the clinicians who can help them, but what a peer can do and must do.

“You can’t sit by idly and just wait for stuff to happen. Sometimes you have to head it off before it gets worse because obviously, when they’re going through a difficult time, their head isn’t always focused on what needs to get done,” he reasoned. “We don’t just want our members to survive their law enforcement careers. We want them to thrive. We don’t want them just Band-Aided up. We want to give our members the tools that they need to be able to have a good mental health.”

Sciallo has graciously acknowledged that Freeman provides a rock for the peer team. And talk about a peer who has been there. He was trained to be a peer in 2007 when Union County had experienced a few officers taking their own lives. And he admits going through a dark time himself when he received some help that basically provided coping skills to help him see the light.

“It was crucial to everything that I was trying to accomplish in life,” Freeman accentuated. “If we’re OK mentally and we’re OK emotionally, we’re able to think through what we’re doing. And everybody’s safer that way.”

Few people are better equipped to deliver the last words – for now – about what PBA members on the Peer Response Team can do for all members and their families. He explains the impetus for every member taking advantage of these new resources by stirring up one of his favorite analogies.

“I do believe that everybody in the world needs, from time to time, just to tune up,” Freeman advocated. “You’ll take your car in for a tuneup when there’s nothing wrong with it. You’ll take it in for an oil change because you have a trip coming up. The reality is, there needs to be some type of maintenance on the human mind every now and again, even when you’re feeling good.”

Healing Hint: “Just open up to your feelings. It’s that plain and simple. Especially as a young officers when you’re experiencing this stuff the first time.”
Mike Szemcsak, Wildwood Local 59

Following that logic, members can be confident that the Peer Response Team and its army of clinicians is not there to assess members. They are there to provide a tune up or more intricate maintenance and repair.

So when peer team members tell you this clinician is OK or that one is a good fit for you, what they are also preaching is this:

“Somebody is there to check in on a semiregular basis, just to make sure that you’re coping with everything, all the changes that are occurring in your life,” Freeman added. “And I think the only way we can get that done is by speaking out, by presenting by this article, by letting people know that this is a necessary part of police work.”