(Editor’s Note: Parts of this story include first-person accounts from a murder scene)
By JOHN ANDERSON
Brent Schlafer was tired of hearing the word “fine.” For decades, he watched his colleagues in law enforcement, first responders and dispatchers deal with the worst incidents anyone could imagine.
From a murder of a child to a fatal fire, when you checked on someone who was at the scene, tried to save a life or notified family members, the first responder would say, “I’m fine.”
But they were not fine.
Allegany County Sheriff Scott Cicirello’s mind wanders back to April 3, 2009 in Binghamton. As a member of the New York State Police, he responded to a 911 call at the Binghamton American Civic Association for a shooting.
Just after 10:30 a.m., Cicirello arrived as a man shot and killed 13 people and then killed himself.
As much as he remembers the incident and walking through the building to see the 13 innocent people murdered, he also remembers what happened later that day.
“I remember it was a cold and rainy day. I remember afterwards, when we got back to the station, we were cleaning our weapons. Not one boss showed up. Not a lieutenant. Not a sergeant or a major. No one showed up to see how we were doing. That stayed with me for the next 10 years or so. I realized, not only are we not taking care of our fellow officers, but there is a void in resources,” Cicirello said.
For decades, police officers were concerned if they got counseling, it would result in being put on probation and eventual termination. Schlafer can rattle off numbers for first responders and police officers from high divorce rates to mental health issues.
While counseling has always been available and insurance companies provide assistance, Schlafer, the Allegany County Sheriff’s Department Wellness Officer, said getting help was always seen by first responders as a sign of mental weakness.
As a result, he has helped launch The Officer Wellness Program. The concept and idea to help first responders through peer support and a reward system was groundbreaking. It also caught the eye of every agency locally and today, the state level.
“I am very humbled by it. I’ve presented it over 30 times across the state,” Schlafer said. “It’s now set up to teach during classes for the NYPD, University Police and sheriff departments in several counties including Orange County and Jefferson County. We had over 70 people from all over the state attend training at Alfred State College.”
The biggest support though, comes from Allegany County, from the sheriff to the district attorney.
“I think this is the greatest thing to happen in a long time,” said Allegany County Sheriff Scott Cicirello. “I come in with a perspective that we see things that are stressful and the criminals we deal with are stressful. When I started, they said (of traumatic incidents) ‘It’s part of your job.’ So you kept your head down and did your job. They would make a counselor available. But if you went? You were worried they would pull your badge or gun.”
Allegany County District Attorney Keith Slep said first responders need to take this program for themselves and their families.
“When you see (a traumatic incident) it is the emotional equivalent of a death by 1,000 cuts. You don’t realize how deep the cuts are affecting you until you are over the edge,” Slep said. “It’s like sun exposure when you are young. You say, ‘I don’t need sunscreen’ and then you are burned. It’s the same thing. When you are young, your response to counseling is, ‘I don’t have to deal with it,’ or ‘I’ll deal with it when I’m older.’ That’s not how it works. It piles up. We all think we are exempt and superhuman.
When we start the job, we think we can deal with the death and crime and abuse cases. But it takes a toll, dealing with it yourself on a day-to-day basis. I want my legacy to leave and not have that affect them,” Slep added.
Slep said this isn’t a program to help one person.
There’s been a mantra, ‘If it saves one person, it’s worth it.” Not in this case. In this line of business, everyone is worth saving. If we lose one, then that is a true tragedy. We need to evolve the program so we don’t lose any. Losing one to me is a tragedy,” Slep said. “I hope everyone in our office, and in connection with the other offices, we all work together on this mechanism. It brings in the family, it brings in your friends and everyone is involved. Do it for your friendships, do it for your families and most of all, do it for yourself.”
Schlafer, who also works court security at Allegany County, said you can always point out someone in law enforcement.
“We are always vigilant. When we go out to eat, we sit with our backs against the wall … we are always worrying and everything adds up,” he said. “I always thought we should do something for law enforcement, something proactive because we are always reactive.”
After months of talking to experts in the field of mental health, law enforcement, first responders and other offices, they came up with a program for everyday self-care.
“I knocked on (Sheriff) Scott Cicirello’s door when he was an investigator with the Allegany County District Attorney’s Office and I told him I needed his help as a presenter,” Schlafer said. “I was worried he wouldn’t be interested. Instead, he’s been not only a supporter, but one of our best presenters. And he continues to support this and make presentations as the Sheriff of Allegany County.”
Cicirello’s father, James, was a police officer and a police chief and his sister was a police officer.
“After 30 years, I realized, when it came to (mental health from a traumatic incident) we weren’t caring about ourselves or our fellow officers,” Cicirello said. “Wellness to me, is a concept. Honestly, five or six years ago I wouldn’t be standing up here. But today it’s something I care about and something I am passionate about.”
Cicirello said he remembers incidents like they took place yesterday and they still weigh heavy on his mind and heart.
“My first year on the job, a four-month-old baby wasn’t breathing,” Cicirello said. “I gave CPR, and the baby died. Two weeks later, the same call, same age, I did CPR and the baby lived. In six months, I experienced the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows and it was nothing they prepared me for in the police academy.”
Cicirello continued, “I’ve been through shootings, homicides, suicides, horrific fatal accidents, deaths of friends in fatal accidents and telling families when they had loved ones die in an accident. I’ve been with those who died in the line of duty and left behind families. We didn’t know how to react. We would go out and get a beer.
“When I step back and look at my stance on wellness now, I realize I lived through it. Everyone in probation and the district attorney’s office has seen things they don’t want to see. They are no different than police or ambulance or fire,” Cicirello added.
As for the program and rewarding those who take part, Cicirello said it’s a fantastic idea.
“When Brent told me this concept of presentation and awards, I had no idea something like this could exist, and I had no idea I would be part of the program and making a difference,” Cicirello said. “But I take zero credit for this. It would not be possible with Brent’s determination and tenacity. His passion, Belinda’s support and contribution made this possible.”
Schlafer and his wife, Belinda, have been advocates of the program and now there are incentives to start the program. Several businesses around Allegany County have pitched in to help including the Palmer Opera House in Cuba, Kent Farms in Andover and Funland Skating Rink in Wellsville. Off Duty in Amity hosted and sponsored an event for the program which was attended by law enforcement, county officials and different agencies in the region.
“We ask, ‘Who are you doing Wellness for?’ And the answer is, you do it for yourself, do it for your family, do it for your colleagues and do it for your community,” Schlafer said. “The results are peace of mind, better sleep, enjoy life more and overall, you are healthier.”
Like Cicirello and others, he can’t believe it’s a reality. Schlafer was a member of a critical response team that would report to an incident or have to take down inmates during a fight or incident.
“Five years ago, I was on the CERT team and I was a CERT team leader,” he said. “I would have laughed at you if you told me I’d be leading this.”
Today, the Officer Wellness Program has backing from the New York State Office of Mental Health and the State Department of Criminal Justice. The criteria of the program meets the 16-hour requirement for accreditation by the state.
The incentives to complete the program means a special day or night out with your family.
“What’s really good is the incentives,” Schlafer said. “It’s not just for the officers, it’s for their families as well.”
He said the program is about empathy, sympathy and leadership when it comes to officers.
“It’s not therapy, we need them to lower those walls by talking about traumatic events,” Schlafer said. “On the average, a person goes through one or two (trammatic incidents) in their lifetime, An officer or first responder goes through 10 times that many. It’s not therapy, it’s just talking to let them know we are there for them.
The sessions are co-instructed with law enforcement officers and culturally competent mental health clinicians. The program utilizes three different PowerPoint Presentations and has a complete participant manual that provides participants with all the materials they need to start their own Wellness Program independently or bring it back to their agency. This includes psycho-education about the different types of mental health treatment, emergency contact numbers, SAMHSA’s 8 dimensions of wellness personal assessment and SAMSHA’s step-by step guide to wellness.
Allegany County Probation Director Scott Grantier said, “I’ve only been on the job (as director) less than a year, but this is a highlight. There are many people behind the scenes but the dedication and hard work of Brent and Belinda has been tremendous.”