Representatives of a local support group for veterans want local police officers to know that they are welcome, too. Gavin Walters and Jessica Bugbee, who work at the Hudson Valley National Center for Veteran Reintegration, where programs offered are intended to assist with issues including substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and other challenges faced by those who have experienced or witnessed horrific and violent situations in combat zones. Despite its origins, these confidential services are available to other members of the community in need, including police officers. The two spoke about these programs at the January 20 meeting of the New Paltz Police Commission.
The center is part of the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, a collaborative initiative that emerged on Long Island due to the historic tendency only to support soldiers completely as long as they remain on active duty. Those who have left the military often face tremendous bureaucratic hurdles in establishing that a given condition is related to that service; in the case of dishonorable discharge — which can be the result of the experiences in a combat zone — those benefits may be stripped away completely.
Now located at 101 Enterprise Drive in Tech City, the center is mostly funded through private donations, as neither state nor federal funding is easy to come by to fulfill the implicit promise to thank veterans for their service by providing for their post-service needs. Nevertheless, Walters explained that it does not matter under what circumstances one left the service — or if they served at all. Programs that are offered to veterans are available to others in need and are provided while protecting privacy for the participants.
According to Bugbee, “The police going to work in chaos is similar to [soldiers], but with fewer resources.” Groups range from direct peer support for others sharing similar struggles such as PTSD or substance abuse, to workshops focused on writing, yoga and even building and restoring wooden boats. All told, “We teach self-regulation.”
One area where the lack of official support for these efforts is most blatant is the fact that center representatives cannot get in to see inmates who have served, but Walters said that they do work with another group to ensure that inmates know about the center and its programs upon their release.
The pair emphasized the importance of community in aiding veterans and others who have experienced work-related trauma.
More officer counseling may take negotiation
Perhaps not coincidentally raised during the same meeting as the offerings at the Center for Veterans in Kingston, Police Commission members discussed one of the reforms recommended in last year’s report: that officers be given at least an hour of mandatory counseling a month, weekly when they face difficult situations on the job and a counselor recommends it. Chief Robert Lucchesi voiced what sounded like full-throated support for the concept, but said that attorneys would have to advise as to whether it’s possible under the current contract terms to require it, or if discussions with union leaders would be necessary. Perhaps more importantly, the Chief would prefer that officers “be invested in it” rather than feeling forced. The text of the recommendation includes hopeful language that in time, the benefits of the counseling would be recognized and welcomed.
“No one wants to admit they’re hurting,” said the Chief, but current policy does require a certain number of counseling sessions through the Employee Assistance Program when triggered by one of a list of types of event including, for example, witnessing a violent death.
The counseling is always available voluntarily and confidentially, as well.
Neil Bettez, the Town’s Supervisor, observed that “this is [also] for people who don’t know they need it.”
Faith may play a part
Another recommendation addressed by the Police Commission was the idea of finalizing a chaplaincy program connected to the police. This has been in development by the Chief in conjunction with Rev. Limina Grace Harmon and leaders of other local sects. As the Chief explained it, volunteer chaplains would be on call to provide “support in the immediacy of an event, including civilians.” The example Lucchesi gave was the tragedy that played out one summer’s day in 2020, when a homeless man was dragged the length of Main Street under a tractor-trailer in view of multiple witnesses and thus “impacted more than officers.”
This is not intended to replace mental health counseling with spiritual support, but to provide an alternative that could be provided more quickly, and for some could be more welcome. While Town resident Maggie Veve urged caution in maintaining separation between church and state functions, council member Alexandra Baer observed that some individuals might be more willing to spend time with a faith leader than participate in a formal counseling session. Baer mused that interaction with a chaplain of one’s faith could serve as a bridge to those services.
While the text of this proposal was not made available, chaplains in other contexts such as prisons and hospitals are usually expected to work with individuals of any faith background, or none, as the situation warrants.
Council member Esi Lewis suggested that volunteer chaplains could even open police training sessions with some kind of invocation or other prayer.