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Little psychological help for officers
Experts say up to 30 percent of police officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder
Dec. 26 — The NYPD is one of the largest police forces in the world, with nearly 40,000 cops, 20,000 patrol cars, about 150 auto mechanics — and just nine therapists for officers with psychological problems. That’s not even one therapist for every 4,500 officers. Compare that to other big cities — one therapist for every 1,000 officers in Los Angeles, one for every 1,600 in Chicago, and one for nearly every 800 in Houston. And most cops work in departments with under 50 officers — for them, there’s often no psychologist at all.


       IN BIGGER DEPARTMENTS like the NYPD, psyche services provides free counseling to officers and often gives referrals and helps pay for outside psychiatrists. To Pete Volkmann, a cop and therapist who counsels New York area cops, this is all important, because trauma is such a big part of the job.
       Pete Volkmann: “Being a police officer, job description, bottom line: hours of boredom, seconds of panic. Not until you do CPR on a baby do you know what it feels like. Not until you see a dead child, and have to make a notification to a parent, do you know what that’s like. Not until you get to a car accident and actually see a body shredded, where you can’t identify it, do you know that experience.”
       Sal Glibbery claimed to be devastated by an experience on the job — taking the life of Alfred Sanders. Yet like many cops, he waited years after the incident to go to psyche services.
       Hoda Kotbe: “Why did it take him that long to say, ‘I need counseling? I need help?’”
       Nancy Glibbery: “When he was at the race track, he just did the traffic in and out of the track, so I guess it really didn’t effect him that badly. Once he got thrown back on patrol, he realized he couldn’t do it.”
       To Sal’s family, going to psyche services seemed to lift a big weight off his shoulders.
       Tom Glibbery: “When he come out of police headquarters I could see a different expression on his face. You know?”
       Hoda Kotbe: “What kind of expression?”
       Tom Glibbery: “Like he was drained. That whatever was busting up inside of him, well, it was let loose now.”
       But what happened next was a shock. For all the years since the shooting, Sal had carried a gun. Now, just one day after calling psyche services, his gun was taken away.
       Nancy Glibbery: “The next day, the sergeant came. Came to the house with a brown paper bag. Put the guns in the bag. And that was it. He thought he was going to get help in some way and this was what they were doing.”
       To Gregg Fried, the NYPD’s executive chief surgeon, it was an easy decision — the department had to protect Sal from himself and take guns away from a seriously ill man.
       Gregg Fried: “Sal was suicidal. Now, how could anybody in good conscience let him go home with that gun?”
       Good question. We asked psychologist Al Benner how a department could ever let a troubled cop go home with a gun.
       Hoda Kotbe: “But if the police didn’t take that gun away, if Sal had done something crazy with that gun — if he had turned it on his family — or turned it on himself — we would have been beating down the doors of the police department saying...”
       Al Benner: “If you use a policy like that, the officers themselves — all of them — will try to stay away from the services that might help them.”
       Benner calls taking a cop’s gun away a potential “death sentence” for the officer — an action he feels the NYPD has a reputation for taking too often. In many other departments, cops keep their guns unless their behavior has changed radically. And Sal’s hadn’t — he was depressed, but still the same old Sal — and his best friend Matt Endres knew losing his gun would hurt.
       Matt Endres: “What’s a hammer to a carpenter, you can’t be a carpenter without a hammer, that’s how he felt.”
“He talked about the terror of actually looking down to see the individual whom he had just shot. And the individual’s face looking up at him. These are the kinds of terrifying images that are indelibly marked in a person who’s suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.”
       Within weeks of reporting to psyche services, Sal was taken off patrol again, put on graveyard shift as a guard in a huge police building. Sal was now a member of what cops call the rubber gun squad — police officers who aren’t allowed to carry weapons. Gone was the camaraderie with fellow officers, gone too the pride he took in being a cop. According to his family, the long hours spent nearly alone seemed an odd assignment for someone claiming to be so lost.
       Nancy Glibbery: “He had all night to think, which was wrong.”
       Psyche services says it did provide Sal with excellent help. He began to see therapists there regularly, and they said his nightmares, flashbacks, extreme indigestion, even the six years of avoiding stress while at the race track were all classic symptoms of a horrifying psychological problem — post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD — a mental illness usually associated with Vietnam veterans. Sal’s disorder, they said, was caused by the shooting.
       In addition to providing therapy, Sal’s police health insurance did something else — referred him to independent psychiatrist William Kaplan. He agreed with the NYPD’s own therapists — saying Sal suffered from a “classic and unmistakable case” of PTSD — and prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills.
       With the family’s permission, Dr. Kaplan agreed to talk to us about the case.
Tears of a Cop
Police suicide statistics and resource links

       Dr. William Kaplan: “He talked about the terror of actually looking down to see the individual whom he had just shot. And the individual’s face looking up at him. These are the kinds of terrifying images that are indelibly marked in a person who’s suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.”
       In 1995, Nancy Glibbery gave birth to their third child, Steven. Sal was delighted with his new son. But behind the smiles, depression still consumed him. Over and over in his dreams Sal faced a man with a knife — in one dream, he faced him alone, in another alone and unarmed, and in the worst of all, alone, stark naked and terrified.
       He returned again and again to his folder about the shooting, to a photo of Sanders lying dead just seconds after Sal had shot him from close range, and to the terror of his own voice on the dispatch tape.
       We know that around the country each year, about 300 police officers shoot and kill, and according to some studies, at least 15 percent of them are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. And yet some argue that even in cities with psyche services like New York’s, the help they get just isn’t good enough.
       Al Benner: “Ask a police department, ‘What is the line-item budget for maintaining your vehicle fleet?’ And then [ask] ‘OK. What is the line-item budget for maintaining the people who drive those vehicles?’”
       Benner believes departments need to create completely confidential counseling programs where cops don’t have to report to therapists who are tied to management. To him, losing a gun and being transferred to light duty are public humiliations that keep cops from getting help. And in the case of PTSD, he says, timing is everything, because the longer you wait, the harder it is to get well.
       Hoda Kotbe: “Don’t you think it would be a deterrent, people not wanting to go to psyche services if I’m a police officer and I see my buddy who went because he needed help, and when he gets there everybody knew about it somehow. They know he’s on a desk job. He doesn’t have his weapon anymore. Why would I go?”
       Gregg Fried: “Of course it’s a deterrent... but if the over-riding consideration is your desire to get better we have plenty of people here that nobody knows about because of confidentiality, who’ve recovered.”
       The NYPD’s Dr. Fried believes psyche services did everything it possibly could to help Sal. He says psyche services is staffed with well-trained, committed psychologists who were there for Sal anytime he called, both day and night.
       Gregg Fried: “We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours talking to Sal. And it’s easy to say, ‘Well, they just threw him back and they chucked him.’ But when we go through his records, you see multiple years of interactive interviews.”
       But for Sal, nothing seemed to be working. During his long nights alone as a security guard he drew a picture of himself — still a policeman, yet stripped of gun, badge and nightstick. To all who saw it — a stark portrait of helplessness and isolation.
       Tom Glibbery: “He kept to himself. Any family gatherings, he was very quiet. And he wasn’t that type of a person.”
       After two years of unsuccessful therapy and light duty, psyche services encouraged Sal to retire. To Sal, it was like being put out to pasture. He was only 36-years-old.
       Nancy Glibbery: “He felt they took away his life.”
       By the end of 1995, eight years after the shooting, Sal began the retirement process. The police department medical board would decide between two pension packages: one, the lower package, would give Sal about $800 a month after taxes for 10 years — well below the poverty level for a family of five in 1996. The second — the line-of-duty disability pension — would give Sal’s family about $2,200 per month for life — still not a lot but enough to get by on for a family of five. More importantly to Sal, his family says, the higher pension recognized that his trauma was caused on the job, the night of the shooting. The difference was critical to Sal, and not just for the financial security of his family.
       William Kaplan: “I think equally important to Sal was that there would be a recognition, a validation of what he had suffered and what the cause of it was.”
       In November of 1996, Sal went before the board for the first time to make his case for the higher pension. His father accompanied him and waited for him downstairs.
       Tom Glibbery: “And he come down. Like, he had a smile from here to here. I said, ‘Good man there.’ “Thank God,” he says, “at least I know they recognized me now.”
       He learned that day that he had been approved for the higher pension.
       Nancy Glibbery: “He was approved for three quarters.”
       Hoda Kotbe: “That means that the medical board confirmed that he had post-traumatic stress disorder?”
       Nancy Glibbery: “Right. He was so happy that they finally, finally, you know, agreed with him and were on his side.”
       After the hearing, the medical board issued a document clearly saying PTSD and line of duty pension approved, next to Sal’s name. Now Sal knew he would have enough for his family to live on, plus the vindication he’d been longing for. It was almost nine years after the shooting and Sal could finally put that cold night in 1987 behind him... or so it seemed.
       With his request for a line-of-duty accident pension approved, relatives say Sal Glibbery was a new man. Smiling more than he had in years, Sal took up drawing again, and even began to think about going to art school.
       Nancy Glibbery: “He was starting to feel like he could get his life back together.”
       But within weeks, Sal received the doctors’ report from the hearing, and it said something else altogether — even though nine other specialists, including the police department’s own experts, ultimately diagnosed Sal as having PTSD, the medical board doctors denied it. They had reversed themselves.
       Hoda Kotbe: “So first they said he had post-traumatic stress disorder.”
       Nancy Glibbery: “Mm-hmm.”
       Hoda Kotbe: “And then three weeks later they said, no, he doesn’t?”
       Nancy Glibbery: “Right.”
       Hoda Kotbe: “What did Sal say when he learned that they were pulling their original statement?”
       Nancy Glibbery: “He was devastated.”
       Cop and therapist Pete Volkmann wants to know why the board doctors reversed their decision in Sal’s case with no explanation.
       Peter Volkman: “I am just amazed that they would put something in writing, that this officer has disability, then three weeks later, come back and say, ‘Oops. You’re denied.’ Where is the accountability? And why can’t the family, or the individual officer, question that — and say, ‘What changed?’”
       The NYPD’s medical board system is like many others around the county — three doctors, one appointed by the city, one by the pension fund, and one by the police union. They sit in judgment of the pension requests of local officers. According to one source at the NYPD, once the doctors are hired, there is no system of oversight to fire them if they’re doing a bad job.
       Hoda Kotbe: “How do other department’s handle these hearings Al?”
       Al Benner: “Badly. I mean NYPD is not alone in this. Part of the deal is the medical boards are doing what the city fathers and mothers ask them to do. They’re putting guarding the coffers above taking care of the troops.”
       Psychologist Benner says the system is biased against mentally ill cops. It’s easy to get the disability pension for physical problems, he says, but nearly impossible for mental ones. But according to Michael Julian, former public information officer for the NYPD, the medical board has a duty to protect the department against false claims.
“When I shot and killed that guy, right or wrong, a piece of me died, too, that day. It would have been different if the job had supported me and believed me and let me retire with dignity... I regret with all my heart that I ever went through this process and most of all I regret letting everyone down.”
       Mike Julian: “The medical board has a role to play in keeping public trust in the police, and every police officer should be concerned about his credibility in the eyes of the public, so it’s up to the medical board to assure that the frauds don’t get through.”
       In Sal’s case, the medical board doctors mentioned his own psychiatrist’s opinion, but rejected the diagnosis of the five experts from the NYPD’s psyche services. The board blamed marital problems and Sal’s own vulnerability” — not the shooting — for his mental illness.
       Hoda Kotbe: “The medical board said that Sal was probably depressed because of other things. Problems at home. That’s their argument as to why they didn’t give him PTSD diagnosis. So what do you say to that?”
       Nancy Glibbery: “I think they’re wrong. They’re just refusing to believe it because once they do admit to this, then they’ll see how many more cops out there there are that need their help and they’re not getting it.”
       Sal often took his children to the beach, but he was not sleeping, and was still tormented by the echoes of “shots fired.” Five months after the hearing, in April 1996, his wife Nancy found him on the living room floor, comatose from an overdose of sleeping pills. Sal was rushed to the hospital and lived.
       Later, Nancy found this note:
       Nancy Glibbery (reading): “When I shot and killed that guy, right or wrong, a piece of me died, too, that day. It would have been different if the job had supported me and believed me and let me retire with dignity. They stripped me of my gun, made me go through a series of boards where people tried to make an ass of me and humiliate me beyond reason. I regret with all my heart that I ever went through this process and most of all I regret letting everyone down.”
       Hoda Kotbe: “When you got this letter, Nancy, reading words like, ‘I regret letting everyone down,’ what was going through you?”
       Nancy Glibbery: “That he never did that.”
       Hoda Kotbe: “He never let you down?”
       Nancy Glibbery: “No. I didn’t see it that way at all. I saw someone who needed help.”
       Sal recovered and got back on his feet. He began what to him was a recurring mission — to appeal the board’s decision and try to make the board doctors believe he was permanently damaged by killing Alfred Sanders. But it wasn’t easy. With each appeal, he appeared before virtually the same doctors who rejected him in the first place. Sal had just one brief interview to make his case, and was always alone, without his lawyer, his own doctor, or any family member for support.
       Hoda Kotbe: “What’s the psychological impact that facing the medical board has on an officer with a mental illness?”
       Al Benner: “He’s going in kind of supplication to these official folks who are all-knowing. It’s like the Wizard of Oz if you will. And if they end up saying no, the answer in his or her mind is it’s because you’re broken inside. You always were. And that’s a devastating message.”
       Over the next few years, Sal saw three more doctors. All three believed he suffered from PTSD. With each new diagnosis, he went back to the board, each time with the complete backing of the NYPD’s psyche services. Yet each time he was rejected. In one report, the board referred to his career as a Marine, implying he was trained to kill and one death wouldn’t bother him. In another, the board cited what it called his “excessive sick records from 1983 through 1994.”
       The NYPD denies Sal had excessive sick records during those years, and in fact, Sal earned certificates for perfect attendance in 1992 and 1993. The board’s reasons varied, but its conclusion was always the same: Sal suffered from general depression, not PTSD caused by the shooting. The higher pension was denied.
       According to Benner, Sal’s experience was not unusual. Many officers around the country are repeatedly rejected for a PTSD diagnosis.
       Al Benner: “The question is, how much strength does somebody have? You know, when do they run out of steam?”
       The psychiatrist on the medical board declined Dateline’s request for an interview. But the NYPD’s Dr. Fried agrees with the nine other experts — both inside and outside the department — who diagnosed Sal with PTSD caused by the shooting.
       Hoda Kotbe: “So you think the medical board made the wrong decision?”
       Gregg Fried: “I think they made the wrong decision. If my psychologists say it’s post-traumatic stress and an outside psychiatrist says it’s post-traumatic stress, and it looks like it, I stand behind them.”
“If they gave my son a disability pension, my son would be alive today...Would be sitting here with me. Guaranteed.”
       And Sal wasn’t giving up — he still had his family to live for. By now he was retired, but on the lower pension. Only his love for his children and family kept him going. In 1998, there were moments when Sal was his old self again, enjoying simple pleasures with the kids on a vacation in Vermont.
       But once back home, the weight of his depression returned. Even hours with his family at the beach couldn’t lift his spirits. Sal now spent hours by himself. He’d once been the life of the party; now loved ones watched helplessly as the sparkle in his eyes began to dim.
       Sal told family members he’d begun talking to himself — he stopped eating and sleeping almost altogether. On June 14, 1999, Sal went before the medical board for the sixth time. Once again the board determined his mental problems came from “feelings of inadequacy” and not PTSD caused by the shooting. Sal saw his father that afternoon.
       Tom Glibbery: “After that day, that’s when he says, ‘I have had enough. And I am not gonna do it anymore.’”
       Matt Endres: “He used to tell me ‘the walls closing in on me.’ It was sort of slow deterioration of my friend.”
       One night a few weeks later, Sal told Nancy he was going to visit his mother, and never came back. Frantic, Nancy called Sal’s best friend Matt who filed a missing person’s report. The next morning, July 7, Nancy called again.
       Matt Endres: “She said they found Sal — and when they got to the emergency room, he had ingested so much drugs, he didn’t make it.”
       Once again Sal had taken an overdose of prescribed sleeping pills. This time, help didn’t arrive soon enough. He was dead. He was just 40-years-old. Four days later, Sal Glibbery was buried, one of 386 cops nationwide who committed suicide in 1999. Each year, for every one cop who dies in the line of duty, nearly three others take their own lives.
       To Pete Volkmann, many of these deaths are caused by stress on the job. He estimates 20 percent — and others estimate more than 30 percent — of all police officers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their careers.
       Peter Volkmann: “If there was cancer on 20 percent of police officers in the New York City Police Department the unions would be up in arms, the people would be up in arms. Well, 20 percent of police officers today have diagnosable PTSD, a debilitating illness, and nothing is being done.”
       Sal Glibbery’s relatives are continuing his fight to get the higher disability pension. They blame the police department — particularly the medical board — for his death.
       Tom Glibbery: “If they gave my son a disability pension, my son would be alive today. Would be alive today. Would be sitting here with me. Guaranteed. And he said that he had this mental problem. They didn’t believe him. And he says, ‘You know what? I’ll show you. I have a mental problem.’ And he took his life. And there is no returning, when you die. He didn’t break his leg. He broke his poor mind. And now, he’s dead.”
       For Sal Glibbery’s three children, there is little now except sadness and loss. It is a family trying hard to make sense of Sal’s death, which to them at least is the second casualty of shots fired 13 years before.

Suicide Cops: In the line of duty


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