The global spread of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems has escalated since the COVID-19 pandemic, affecting police protecting state parks and universities.
Members of the State Police Charity Association are tasked with rescuing people in need in the state’s forests or campuses. Sometimes, this means helping someone who is contemplating or trying to commit suicide.
Robert Praczcaglo, a state forest ranger of 22 years, recounted that he helped search for a woman early in his career. She committed suicide after stabbing herself several times in a state forest next to a large oak tree.
He recalled the incident so quickly that it made him cry.
“It was very hard to really understand,” he said, adding that he was afraid of the dark for a while afterward. “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know the family. It was really hard.”
Nearly two decades have passed, but grief lives on in the hearts of the responding officers.
“Firefighters who see crazy things, they see people burning, they screw their heads,” Brachcaglu recalls. “Their reaction in the woods was that they were just screaming… I messed it up. I was new and didn’t talk to anyone.”
Park police in the Niagara area of western New York, which includes Niagara Falls, regularly respond to people in distress contemplating death by suicide — something that has become almost a weekly call since the pandemic.
“It attracts people because it’s so beautiful,” said Hayley Boland, a state park police officer in the state’s Niagara area. “It looks like we got a lot of people out there to end their lives.”
A 14-year-old boy died by suicide in Niagara Falls this spring. Boland said a woman drove her car into the water last December.
Officers often pay through it, and they work hard to remain strong for one’s family.
“Everyone deals with it differently,” Poland added. “You have to stay strong for the family because they will need your support.”
People who plan to harm themselves often head out into the woods for several days—and usually die by suicide through an overdose of prescribed medications or other substances, by hanging or jumping off a cliff.
“Sometimes you get the time of death from the coroner and you say, ‘Man, we were already looking for them… We haven’t found them yet,’ Brachcaglu said.
Suicide attempts are most common among teens and young adults who can leave notes, keys, or wallets behind as crumbs for officers to find.
It’s a difficult topic to discuss, but it has become banal.
“If you need help, ask for the help you need,” said Jeffrey Eckert, a Niagara-area park police officer.
He cited the changing culture among law enforcement and first responders to talk about the shocking call.
“They used to say ‘Don’t talk about it, kid,'” Eckert said.[but] It’s becoming more and more known that getting help is the right way to deal with it rather than keeping it inside and letting it build up.”
Most of the other calls that end in successful rescues make the mission worthwhile, the officers say. It is not uncommon for the police to talk to someone far from the edge of a rock or water and save their life and seek the professional help they need.
University police also saw a rise in mental health calls as law enforcement was relied upon early in the pandemic when most other industries closed.
“We were really the first to come to the scene maybe even for things that wouldn’t be a police call,” said University Police PBA member Caitlin Clark. “But they didn’t have anyone else.”
It is casting a shadow over PBA officers – affecting an already dire employment crisis.
Chris Costos, a forest ranger who helped educate EDB Commissioner Basil Segos and the PBA on 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 works to remember his beloved friend’s legacy of continuing his law enforcement mental health education.
“This is such an amazing guy, an incredible guard, who can’t take it anymore because of his job…and other stresses in his life,” Brachkailo said.
He advised: “Seek more, better, professional help you can find and don’t wait until it’s too late.”
Members can access mental health assistance through the State Police Personnel Assistance Program. Several officers said Friday that they feel uncomfortable using the available crisis peer mentoring program to speak with fellow officers.
a PBA pension reform bill for 20 years Of the 25 awaits Governor Cathy Hochul’s signature. About 97% of state law enforcement can retire after 20 years. The PBA police are among the few exceptions, and are forced to serve another five years.
Costos’ death by suicide occurred after more than 22 years of service. Union members said it’s an example of why they need to retire after 20 years in the job when other cops do.
Hochul’s office said Friday that it is reviewing the legislation and will not answer questions about the 25-year retirement policy’s relationship to officers’ mental health crises.
PBA advocates say she’s unlikely to sign off on the measure before the state’s gubernatorial election on November 8.
Union representatives recently met with Governor Hoechul’s staff to present statistics on the PBA’s pension reform bill.