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May 02, 2020

Montgomery Co. officer’s suicide spurs house bill that would better mental health services

WASHINGTON (ABC7) — On Friday, U.S. Representatives David Trone (D-Md.) and Guy Rechenthaler (R-Pa.) introduced a bipartisan bill that would enhance confidentiality requirements for federal law enforcement officers who take part in peer-to-peer mental health support groups.


The Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support Counseling Act — or COPS Counseling Act for short — was born out of the death of Montgomery County Police Officer T.J. Bomba. In October of last year, the veteran cop committed suicide atop a public parking garage in Downtown Silver Spring. Bomba left behind a wife, two young sons, plus throngs of fellow officers, all stunned by his passing.


“Policemen, like others, are often afraid to raise their hand and say, ‘I need some help. I need to talk to somebody about what I’ve seen, what I’ve experienced,'” Congressman Trone told 7 On Your Side via Zoom Friday. “They’re out front every day dealing with some horrible situations that you and I might only encounter once in a lifetime.”


The COPS Counseling Act seeks to establish clear confidentiality standards for peer support programs within federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Capitol Police, U.S. Park Police, and U.S. Secret Service. Individuals who violated the code of secrecy could face strict disciplinary measures. The bill would also require the U.S. Department of Justice to publish “best practices” on its website, plus list training programs available for individuals who may be interested in becoming peer-support mentors.


According to a Fraternal Order of Police study, 73 percent of surveyed officers believed peer support groups were the best behavioral and mental health resources available within their respective departments. At the same time, many of the surveyed officers expressed trepidation that their intimate thoughts and/or sensitive investigative intelligence could be disseminated to a wider audience.


“And that’s a chilling effect on people going to get help,” Trone noted. “We’re here to help people, not spread a bunch of rumors.”


Although the COPS Counseling Act would not have control over state and local police agencies, Trone stated he is hopeful that it would prompt politicians at those levels to take similar legislative action to, as he phrased it, “move this across America.”


“By setting up a best practice, we’re going to work with our state legislators in Annapolis, and then they can work that through the state of Maryland,” Trone remarked. “So, we will see a cascading effect of this.”


In November, Trone hosted a roundtable discussion on mental health. Dr. Joshua Gordon, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, moderated the candid conversation. Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones, Montgomery County Fire Rescue Service Chief Scott Goldstein, Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin, and union representatives were all in attendance, among many others.


In a typed letter addressed to Congressman Trone, Chief Jones expressed his support for the COPS Counseling Act and noted that he looks forward to its passage.


“There should be no barriers for our public safety employees to obtain the treatments or assistance needed,” Chief Jones wrote in the April 30 letter. “This bill will assist in eliminating those barriers.”


The legislation, in its current form, lists several exceptions where law enforcement officers or mental health professionals could break confidentiality. Those conditions include any explicit threat of suicide or an admission of criminal conduct, among others.


“Right now we talk about the COVID deaths being over 60,000 but we forget that suicide claimed over 47,000 lives last year. We have a mental health crisis in America and stigma is the issue,” Trone added.


Congressmen Trone and Rechenthaler introduced the COPS Counseling Act on May 1, as it aligned with the start of Mental Health Awareness Month.


The U.S. House Judiciary Committee will review the COPS Act before it moves to the House floor for a vote. Congressman Trone expressed confidence in the passage of the bill, noting that suicide prevention, particularly among first responders, is a bipartisan platform.


“There’s often a pivot point. Something happens in life — like the loss of T.J. Bomba — that says, action has to take,” Trone opined. “And then everybody steps up and we take action, and we try to help so it doesn’t happen again, and again, and again.”