House Committee unanimously passes PTSD bill amid high rates of first responder suicide

February 23, 2019 GMT

BOISE — Meridian Deputy Police Chief Tracy Basterrechea, who has been a police officer for 23 years, has always focused on officer safety. He didn’t want one of Meridian’s officers ending up on the memorial wall.

But on Sept. 22, 2018, he got a call he was never prepared to receive. A Meridian police officer had killed himself while on duty, with his partner in the car.

Basterrechea, in a tear-filled hearing, recounted the experience to lawmakers Thursday, as they considered a bill that would allow workers’ compensation to fund mental health treatment for first responders.

During Thursday’s legislative hearing, Basterrechea said the drive to tell the officer’s family about his death was the most difficult. He had to tell the officer’s children that their dad was not taken by “bad guys,” but by “the bad things he had seen.”

Had workers’ compensation covered post-traumatic stress injuries, Basterrechea believes the officer would have known it was OK for him to admit he needed help.

“It’s hard for protectors to ask for protection,” the officer’s father said in a tearful testimony. “That is where we fail.”

After hearing testimony for an hour, the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee unanimously approved SB 1028, sending it to the full House for final passage. The bill, which earlier passed the Senate, 31-4, needs House passage and the governor’s signature to become law.

Currently, first responders are eligible for workers’ compensation for psychological treatment only if the injury is accompanied by a physical injury. As a result, those who need counseling for post-traumatic stress sometimes need to use their time off and pay for their therapy themselves. This bill would make it so a post-traumatic stress injury would be recognized as a work-related psychological injury, eligible for workers’ compensation.

The fallout from the Meridian officer’s suicide still affects the department four months later, Basterrechea said, but according to Thursday’s testimony, it was not the only first responder suicide in the Treasure Valley last year.

Rob Shoplock, executive vice president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Idaho, testified he knew two first responders, one who was a firefighter, who died by suicide in 2018. First responders are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than the average person, he said.

Ada County Paramedics Chief Darby Weston recalled in the 1980s, when post-traumatic stress wasn’t even being talked about, a new paramedic responded to a fatal crash on Highway 21. A woman was found unresponsive. In the search for her driver’s license, the new paramedic learned it was the woman who lived behind the fence, whom he had known since she was 3 years old.

Less than a year later, the paramedic killed himself, Weston said.

“Our first responders do the work most of us would never want to do,” said Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, sponsor of the bill. “They see what most of us would only see in our nightmares.”

What’s most telling, he said, is that more first responders completed suicide than died on duty last year. He put the blame on the lack of resources for first responders after a traumatic experience.

It’s only 53 days into the year, and 35 officers across the United States have died from suicide, according to BLUE Help. Since 2016, 494 law enforcement officers nationwide have completed suicide.

Chairman James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, relinquished his seat to testify in favor of the bill.

“Unfortunately, some of these great Idahoans see no hope for the future,” he said. “We can and have to do better. We as a state must do better. I’m asking you, let’s help them in their time of need.”

Rep. Neil Anderson, R-Blackfoot, asked Basterrechea how the proposed legislation would have helped the officer in that situation.

“Was he not seeking treatment?” Anderson asked.

“One thing it (the legislation) does is it tells officers it’s OK to say you have this injury,” Basterrechea said.

Though much has been done by individual agencies to connect first responders with help following traumatic incidents, the stigma still remains that if first responders admit they need help, they’ll lose their job, said Lisa Johnson, mental health professional who has worked with law enforcement in the Treasure Valley for 15 years.

She thinks legislation would help break that stigma. It would let first responders know, “it’s OK to not be OK,” she said.

It’s not only the critical incidents that officers need help with, Basterrechea said. He’s watched children die at the hands of their own parents and watched crash victims take their last breath.

“No one came to see me and offered counseling,” he said. “That’s just part of the job.”

But since September, Basterrechea said the department has promised to do everything it can to prevent another officer’s death.

With the nation’s 35th officer suicide already this year, he said, “it’s a problem we have to deal with.”