The recent suicide of a beloved Mercer County Sheriff's Officer has New Jersey law enforcement circling back to a trusted resource, a hotline called Cop-2-Cop.

Following Officer Pablo Santiago's death in late December, the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association used its social media to share information about the confidential, 24-hour service.

"The strongest and bravest sometimes need help. No matter what's happening in life, big or small, it's ok not to be OK," the police union said.

The peer-to-peer counseling hotline has been running in New Jersey in partnership with UMDNJ and Rutgers University since 1998. Director Cherie Castellano says the mission is on "rescuing those who are rescuing everybody else."

A national study commissioned by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that as of 2017, police and firefighters were more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. The study cites constant exposure to death and destruction as the cause of depression and PTSD and also notes that police officers and firefighters face higher rates of suicide than civilians.

There's also the issue of whether law enforcement suicides are being accurately reported as such. Preliminary 2018 law enforcement officer fatalities in 2018 were 145 nationwide, a 12 percent increase over 2017. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, three of them were in New Jersey.

The NJSPBA reported 19 police suicides across the state in 2015 alone. The grim statistics have been revisited after the suicides of two well-known officers in 2016 and 2017 in Sayreville and Hamilton, respectively.

Cop-2-Cop is a free and confidential 24-hour hotline available to law enforcement officers at 866-267-2267.  The hotline is staffed by volunteer retired law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals. Since the initiative began in 1998, they’ve fielded more than 80,000 calls and developed a new resilience course for active officers.

A decade after a state task force on police suicide, there's still an uphill battle to remove the stigma of seeking help, advocates say. The issue of discriminatory thinking in regard to those dealing with any mental illness is covered at length by the Governor's Council on Mental Health Stigma.  Castellano says newer classes of officers seem to understand that accepting treatment is a necessary part of their high intensity environment.

She says the initiative continues to be focused on creating services and resources that educate and allow for a safe place for police officers to get what they need.

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