HARTFORD, CT — Legislators are trying once more to pass a bill that seeks special rules for police officers who seek mental health care services following job-related trauma.
The bill this week easily passed through the Judiciary Committee after previously being passed by the Public Health Committee.
Similar legislation made it out of the Public Safety Committee last year but died on the Senate calendar.
The bill would prohibit a law enforcement unit from firing, disciplining, or discriminating against an officer solely because the officer seeks mental health services or surrenders his or her firearm during the period when the officer seeks such services.
The bill also allows a police officer who is voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital to have his or her firearm returned upon discharge, if the officer complies with the bill’s provisions.
Under current law that was passed in 2013 following the Sandy Hook massacre, someone who is voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital — and not solely for alcohol or drug dependency treatment — is ineligible to possess a firearm for six months after discharge. This is seen as a barrier to treatment for police officers because the loss of access to their service weapon could cost them their jobs.
The bill also would:
• require a law enforcement unit to ask such an officer to submit to a mental health evaluation before returning a surrendered firearm to the officer, and;
• require the Department of Emergency Protection and Public Protection (DESPP) and municipalities with police departments to develop a list of licensed mental health care providers in the state and to post it on their respective websites.
A strong supporter of the bill is Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, who also spent more than two decades as a police officer.
Champagne told his fellow Judiciary Committee members that he, too, during his police career suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“Police work is not easy,” Champagne said. “You see the death of children, gunshot victims, domestic violence,” among other terrible things, the senator said. “Many officers commit suicide because they don’t get the therapy they need.”
Under current Connecticut law, Champagne said: “Police will not get what they need if there’s a chance they’ll lose their job.”
During the public hearing phase of the bill in front of the Public Health Committee, James Rascati, a clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at Yale University, implored legislators to pass the bill.
“Over the past 15 years I personally have responded to multiple line of duty deaths as well as to nine police suicides, one of the most devastating events any law enforcement agency can experience,” Rascati testified.
Rascati, who has trained officers in about 40 Connecticut police departments, testified that first responders — law enforcement in particular — are usually reticent to use behavioral health services.
“There is the macho culture, concerns about confidentiality, the stigma and the fear that somehow talking to a therapist will negatively impact their career,” Rascati testified. “And yet the literature and research is fairly clear that police officers have higher rates of divorce, substance abuse, acute stress disorder, PTSD, depression, and suicide than the general public.”
Rascati added: “I get that after Sandy Hook we as a society and the state legislature had to ‘do something’ after that tragedy. However, in our rush to do something I believe we did not think through the implications on how the original bill would negatively impact law enforcement in seeking mental health care.”
One of the two Judiciary Committee legislators who voted against the bill was Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin.
Dubitsky said there was no bigger supporter of police than himself but he couldn’t support a bill that “provides a benefit to a small class of residents.”
“If it’s good policy for police officers, it’s good policy for everybody,” Dubitsky said.
Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, also voted against the legislation.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, agreed with Dubitsky’s arguments but he voted in favor of the bill.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, presented an argument similar to Dubitsky’s and Sampson’s, last year, when the bill was raised.
“While we respect the hard work of our sworn officers across the state, we believe it would be in the best interest if this bill were modified to include all seeking the issuance or renewal of a permit to carry a pistol or revolver, an eligibility certificate for pistols or revolvers, or an eligibility certificate for long arms,” Wilson wrote last year. “Essentially, if this legislation is good enough for police officers, it should good enough for all applicants.”