The sister of a New York City Police officer who died by suicide — the ninth this year — says she told the department that her brother was a danger to himself and others multiple times over the past seven years.
Twice, she says, the department took his weapons away. Twice, she says, they gave them back.
Eileen Echeverria said her most recent communications with the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau in June led to her brother being relieved of his weapons. But she says they were returned within days.
Officer Robert Echeverria, 56, a 25-year veteran of the force and member of the Strategic Response Group — an NYPD rapid-reaction unit — died by suicide on Wednesday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, law enforcement sources told CNN.
‘He is unraveling’
In an email sent by Eileen Echeverria to the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau — and provided by Echeverria to CNN — she refers to her brother as “suicidal,” adding, “I really am concerned about guns in the house.” She asked the department to contact her.
In an interview with CNN, she said she spoke with internal affairs officers. “I called and said, ‘my brother is threatening to kill me or himself. He is unraveling.'”
Her efforts led to a psychiatric evaluation, she said, during which her brother’s guns were taken away. Echeverria said they were returned shortly afterward.
“Two days later, he had his guns back,” she said. “Two months later, he’s dead.”
The June call to IAB was not Echeverria’s first. She said she called the department in 2012 after an altercation between her brother and his son. Officer Echeverria’s guns were taken away for a month that time, she said.
“I’ve called half a dozen times since 2012,” she said.
The NYPD did not address Echeverria’s claims specifically when asked about them Friday, but Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, a police spokeswoman, told CNN that the department is investigating.
‘The Rubber Gun Squad’
Echeverria said her brother was worried that seeking help would get him assigned to desk work — what he called “the rubber gun squad” — and mean the end of any overtime hours, exacerbating what she characterized as his difficult financial situation.
That’s precisely the stigma that the department has been trying to address. Speaking in June after the sixth NYPD suicide of the year, Chief of Department Terence Monahan said he wanted to provide assistance to officers with an eye toward getting them back on the job.
“We have to look at, how do we get them back to service, get them back out there, doing what they signed on to do, doing what they love to do?” he said.
Asked at the time about officers who feared that seeking help would mean losing their jobs, Monahan said, “Well, if you come here today, you’ll have it (your job) tomorrow.”
‘Reach out for help’
Echeverria’s death came less than two days after the department’s eighth suicide. Following that death, Monahan took to Twitter in what has now become a somber recurrence, sharing phone numbers for officer helplines and department chaplains.
“Please reach out for help — on the job or off,” he tweeted. “You’re never alone.”
Echeverria said she doubted officers like her brother would pick up the phone to call the department for help. She said all officers should have mandatory mental health check-ins.
Since the spate of suicides this summer, the NYPD has been developing a plan to help troubled officers. Eight hundred members of executive New York Police Department staff will begin retraining this month with experts on mental health, stress and suicide, with the goal to eventually train the entire department, Police Commissioner James O’Neill told CNN during a recent interview.
NYPD staffers also went to Los Angeles to observe its police department peer support system, which includes clinicians who spend time with officers, and psychologists who make rounds, visiting every command.
The goal is to have a peer representative in every precinct and every command that’s specifically trained to help an officer step back from the brink and find a trained professional to help.
Echeverria said she hoped speaking publicly about her brother’s suicide would help save the lives of other officers who might be contemplating suicide.
“There are nine officers dead, and many more before this (year),” she said. “This is 1,000% avoidable.”