Thursday, March 1, 2007


Elizabeth Zelvin

When I set out to write Death Will Get You Sober, I chose an amateur sleuth as my detective because I knew next to nothing about cops. I had read plenty of police procedurals, but not for the police procedure. I followed fictional favorites like Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe, Julie Smith’s Skip Langdon, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti for their personal lives—in other words, character development. But I had no sense of real life police officers as people.

That changed in 2003, when I was invited to take a part-time counseling job with a New York City outfit called Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA). Founded in 1996 in response to a double-digit rash of suicides in NYPD as a resource by cops for cops, POPPA had just obtained funding to reach out to the thousands of officers affected by 911 and its aftermath. Active and retired police of all ranks had already been trained as peer counselors. They staffed a 24-hour hotline, known only by word of mouth, on a volunteer basis. Now they joined mental health professionals like me in teams that visited every command in the five boroughs to educate uniformed police about how emotional fallout from 911 might be affecting them 18 months later and to tell them how POPPA could help.

The way we operated was counterintuitive for us clinicians. We didn’t make the groups we addressed sit in a circle and share about their post-traumatic stress. We had five or ten minutes—right after roll call, when the cops had received their day’s assignment and were eager to get out on the streets—to say our piece and invite anyone who wanted to call the hotline, anonymously if they wished, and talk further with a cop who understood and was not affiliated with the Department. At the beginning, even the clinically savvy POPPA administration hardly let us open our mouths, so sure were they that only cops knew how to talk to cops. Gradually, the counseling cops we worked with came to trust us. And for me, the human beings inside the blue uniform—at least a thousand of them in the nine months the job lasted—came into focus.

The courage of these dedicated men and women was profound and deeply poignant, as was their pain. In a profession where toughness and fortitude are prized, many of these officers were carrying a heavy emotional load in silence. Later on, when we were allowed to spend a more extended period—30 or 40 minutes—with groups of cops assembled for inservice training—we were able to distribute an anonymous questionnaire, a PTSD checklist. In every group, at least one person suffered from one or more major symptoms: intrusive thoughts, nightmares, rage or irritability, inability to concentrate, avoidance of or panic response to stressful situations, increased alcohol use, marital conflict, feelings of despair and hopelessness. Yet these officers were still working, dealing with 12-hour shifts, cancelled weekends and vacations, and such duties as patrolling the subway tunnels with inadequate protection against possible dangers such as biological weapons. They also faced the hostility or indifference of a civilian population that had long since ended the love affair with the city’s police that had bloomed for a few months after 911 itself. All were required to attend training in counterterrorism measures. All believed terrorists would strike at New York again sooner or later.

In mystery fiction, we meet mostly detectives. Too often, we ignore the uniformed officers who risk their lives as first responders to a crisis, whether it’s a case of domestic violence, rape or murder, or the unimaginable, like the toppling of the World Trade towers. Let’s not forget the ordinary cops, young and scared but not allowed to admit it even to themselves, who run toward danger when the rest of us are running away.

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