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May 07, 2020

Police officer’s suicide inspired Trone’s bill requiring confidentiality in counseling

Credit: Bethesda Beat, Dan Schere

U.S. Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) said a Montgomery County police officer’s suicide last year inspired him to file a bill that could encourage law enforcement officers to get counseling help.

Trone, a Potomac resident whose district includes parts of Montgomery County, introduced a bill in Congress last week that would ensure confidentiality in peer support counseling programs for federal law enforcement officers.

The Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support (COPS) Counseling Act, which Trone introduced Friday, would require that federal law enforcement officer peer support programs remain confidential, with a few exceptions that include

  • threats of suicide
  • admitting criminal conduct
  • threats to harm or kill someone
  • information about the abuse or neglect of a child or other type of vulnerable person

On Oct. 14, Montgomery County police Officer T.J. Bomba died of a gunshot wound on top of a parking garage in downtown Silver Spring. About 36 hours after the shooting, police said the gunshot wound was self-inflicted.

Trone, in an interview on Monday, said he started thinking about drafting a bill that focused on mental health in law enforcement after a roundtable he convened in November with first responders across the county.

Trone cited comments from that meeting by retired county firefighter Eric Fessenden, who said firefighters often don’t discuss their problems openly with each other out of fear of retribution from management.

“That was the key, because we need to have legislation that protects confidentiality,” Trone said of Fessenden’s comment.

Trone said that roundtable meeting showed how first responders must deal with mental trauma in their everyday jobs. The normal stress they face has since been compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, he said.

“They are subjected to this on top of all the human frailties and insecurities. And now we’re seeing with COVID, and on top of that the financial meltdown ….. two more giant stressors on top of what was already a broken mental health system that’s largely held back by stigma,” he said.

The COPS Act doesn’t require state and local authorities to make confidentiality mandatory in peer counseling, but it requires the Department of Justice to list best practices and training programs for law enforcement officers on its website.

Trone said he hopes that puts pressure on state and local law enforcement to adopt similar practices.

Montgomery County police Chief Marcus Jones and former Chief Tom Manger have both expressed support for the bill.

Jones, in a letter April 30, wrote that “mental health has been a growing concern for many in our profession and in our communities.”

“It is vitally important in our work environment due to the stressful nature of the profession that there is an abundance of confidence for employees to come forward in a confidential manner to share and/or gain assistance with or from their peers,” he wrote.

Trone said there is bipartisan support for his bill, and U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican, has agreed to be a cosponsor.

“He really has an interest in this whole criminal justice, police area. So I wanted to get someone that had this background that was respected in the Republican Party in the House to step up,” he said.

Trone said the next step is to build a sponsor list for the bill, then it will be considered by the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House, before it can go to the Senate.