Robert Shepitka is an Advisor to USLEO and pastor in Latham, New York. He rides with the Colonie Police Department.
Three years ago, this month, my wife and I were leaving our home in Colonie, New York for our church’s Tuesday night prayer meeting. It was around 6p.m. As we were pulling out of our driveway, fire trucks began speeding past us with their sirens blaring. I remember that they were going very fast, much faster than normal. By the time we got to the next intersection, multiple police cars shot by, also with their sirens blaring. It was obvious that something very serious was happening.
The next morning, as I left for work at our church, I could smell the smoke that was still in the air. I wondered what had happened the night before.
Our church is always bustling in the mornings. We operate a preschool and the teachers were preparing their lessons and the parents were making their way through the school with their children. As I walked down the hallway, one of our teachers asked if I had heard about the fire. I told her that I had heard the sirens and smelled the smoke, but I didn’t know what had happened. Then she told me that the fire was at the home of a Colonie policeman and that he and his family were found dead. The news was especially difficult for me, as I am familiar with some of the Colonie Police Department’s LEOs. I wondered if I knew him.
The next morning, the terrible and numbing news was out. The policeman had shot his wife and child with his weapon. He then doused his home with gasoline, lit a fire and shot himself. The community was in shock. The Colonie Police Department was in shock. The policeman who took his own life and the lives of his family was a decorated officer with 12 years on the force. Beforehand, he had served in the U.S. Army Reserve. According to police, there was no history of PTSD. No one could believe that he could have done this. There were no obvious signs and a motive was never determined. The Colonie Police say that this tragedy was completely out of character for the officer. Only two months before, I had met this policeman and his wife at a Christmas party. I shook their hands. I looked right into their eyes. Now, I will never forget their faces.
Why does something like this happen? It happens much more often than we think. As a pastor, whose primary responsibility is to help people, I think that I may now have a clue. Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to ride with Lieutenant James Gerace of the Colonie Police Department. The first night that I rode I became very aware that LEOs are very much like pastors. They are helping people who are off the track. Their very name says what they do. They are law enforcement officers. They enforce the law when others break it. But one main difference between LEOs and pastors is that pastors mostly work with people that they have come to know, at least at some level. LEOs almost always deal with strangers who can become volatile or violent at any time. Their lives are always in danger.
In my limited time riding along I have seen the LEO approach a groaning, drunken man passed out behind the wheel of a vehicle. I’ve been up close at a domestic dispute with the husband hiding somewhere inside the house and his very drunken wife pulling into their driveway. I’ve observed a heroin addict with the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen arrested for shoplifting. I watched as a man was pulled over, questioned and arrested, the LEO finding a previous warrant for his arrest and a loaded handgun under the seat. I have seen the darkness of prostitution and hostage negotiating. I watched a nervous elderly woman, whose hands were shaking, with a disabled vehicle in the road. And I listened to a frightened teenager, arrested for driving under the influence of drugs, cry as she tells the LEO that her father is a LEO.
All these situations involve real people with real issues and real emotions. When I would end the shift and go home, my emotions were running high. I had seen the broken people of a sometimes, dark world. The LEO sees it every day, day in and day out. How do they cope with all that they see? With the help that is necessary and the sources available. With these implemented on a daily basis, they can cope with the pressures of life and they can succeed!
Chaplain John Natale Suffern Police Department / President & Founder of USLEO
To the many families that have lost a loved one due to suicide, we first offer our prayers and support. You are not alone! It’s time for change, and that time is now. The rise of this epidemic has caused such a stirring in the community and has caused everyone to question how this became such an out of control scenario in the policing community.
It is now growing in catastrophic proportions, and presently, it outnumbers the deaths in the line of duty throughout the nation. The question is; what is happening? What can be done to stop it and how can the percentages be lowered?
Throughout my life as a pastor, as chaplain for the Suffern Police Department, and president of United States Law Enforcement Organization, I have had the opportunity to help and support many people dealing with depression and grief on the emotional aspect of life. Also being an individual that dealt with depression as a young man and had these same thoughts, I overcame these hurdles and made a choice to help people to do the same.
One of the keys to counseling is the ability to understand the individual from where the pain actually is originating from. Most of the time, suicide is stemming from a wound from the past that has not been dealt with. In most cases, the individuals that have not been helped from past hurts, stay silent out of denial simply because they might believe there is no problem or they choose hide their bitterness, anger, depression or even resentment from a past occurrence that was never addressed or dealt with. It is a silent killer that attacks the mind and heart on an emotional level.
There doesn’t have to be a trauma on the job that causes suicidal thoughts, this is just one of the target points we are addressing in this article. We do know that on the job trauma is a very significant scenario that is on the rise and the percentages are growing too fast and too soon. In most cases, a foundational breach in the past that involves people, is usually the case for any type of negative thoughts to oneself. The pain from the past can cause numerous things to be exposed that include; low self worth, self condemnation, low self esteem and most of all, a mindset that carries a thought process that convinces the individual that help is not possible and their life value is irreversible.
Can we stop it? No, we can’t, but we sure can lower the numbers by specific target areas. USLEO is not just an organization that helps with financial support to families, but emotional counseling as well.
As a pastor, we will target the areas of the past and deal with them in such a way that helps facilitate healing and closure to the attributes of emotional trauma. Our organization gives an extension to officers that need an outlet to share their heart and get the emotional help they need to remove the baggage that is carried in life’s journey. With many cases that deal from the past, our passion and desire is simple; change the heart, heal the person. It’s a very simple methodology that works and stays its course. For the individual dealing with it, to the extended family that is affected by it, we are here for everyone. Nobody left behind, nobody forgotten.
USLEO is an organization that has answered the call to humanitarian relief. Supporting the men and women in blue that have dedicated their lives to protect and serve.
With a passion and commitment to be a light in a dark place, our desire is to bring comfort and assistance where needed.
Locally, nationally and internationally, John Natale is a vocal advocate helping people worldwide to establish peace, inspiration and encouragement; helping others run the race.
John is the president and founder of U.S.L.E.O. He also serves as chaplain and PEO for the Suffern Police Department in Suffern, NY.
He is the author of “Journey of Destiny,” a book about overcoming adversity.