Almost every weekend, Roselle Park Police Officer Edward Nortrup would visit his brother’s home and bring along his 15-month-old baby girl.
The new father rejoiced in his daughter’s milestones, from her initial babbles to the first time she uttered the word “dadda.” And practically on a loop, he would play her favorite song, “Baby Shark.”
But one sunny Sunday in January was different.
While vacationing in Nashville, John Nortrup received a phone call from someone telling him Edward was dead.
The 39-year-old cop crashed his car in Matawan, and then shot himself while first responders were attempting to remove him from the wreck. He admitted to a responder on scene that he’d had a few drinks prior to the crash, John Nortrup said.
His death is just one example of the growing nationwide issue of police suicides, and comes as New Jersey’s law enforcement community begins to search for solutions.
One approach beginning to take root is secluded rooms for relaxation stocked with resources to help officers cope with the daily stress connected to their careers. Some hope such rooms become a trend in the coming years.
“You’re always searching for answers. (Officer Nortrup) had a daughter and the job he always wanted. Why did this even happen?” John Nortrup asked, sitting at the kitchen table of his Howell home while sifting through old photographs of his brother in uniform.
“He had his troubles like everybody. But being a police officer, not only do you have to take care of your own problems, but you have to take care of everyone else’s too,” his brother said.
One Monmouth County police department — Long Branch — is taking that novel, yet simple, approach to helping officers deal with day-to-day pressure from the job by opening “resiliency room,” or what is essentially a break room with additional resources to promote mental health.
Particularly intense emergency calls and the emotional scenes of fatal accidents can affect those who respond even after they clock out. Long Branch’s new room is the first of its kind in any New Jersey department to combat work-related stress, which experts say may contribute to the high number of police suicides.
“I’ve seen everything that’s in Hollywood that they portray on TV, but this is real life. And how do you de-stress from that? You don’t want to take this work home with you,” Long Branch police Corporal Lance Fanning said.
The quiet room is located away from police headquarters, on the second-floor of a building on one of the Long Branch’s main stretches. Up until recently, the small space — donated to the township by the property owner — was an underused police substation.
Officers will be able to file incident reports or take lunch breaks in the room, away from the hectic atmosphere of the police department and the streets. Marriage counselors and therapists will be available there when needed. And breathing stations will be set up to teach officers how to better focus and relax, said Long Branch Sgt. Antonia Gonzalez, who came up with the idea and helped organize it.
A salt lamp and reclining couch welcome visitors who step through the door, along with the calming sound of a mini tabletop water fountain.
“The whole thing of not being able to relax throughout a shift causes problems in our bodies. There are physical symptoms that happen when you can’t relax and you’re eating. Now put 25 years to that,” Gonzalez said. “That does something to your body and mental health.”
The idea had long been spoken about within the department, but Gonzalez said they were spurred into action after the state Attorney General’s Office implemented the New Jersey Resiliency Program last August. The program will require every officer in the state to go through a two-day training session by 2022 that addresses mental health, coping mechanisms and removing the stigma associated with asking for help.
It marked a starting point for tackling the issue in the Garden State policing, and was followed by legislation passed in January to track police suicides.
Gonzalez is one of three Long Branch officers implementing the state’s ideas at the local level and assisting officers when they may be overwhelmed.
“(The room) is a great idea and clearly demonstrates that the Resiliency Program for Law Enforcement, even in its infancy, is changing police culture in New Jersey, one department, one officer, and one Resiliency Program Officer interaction at a time,” New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
Long Branch Chief Jason Roebuck says something as typical as eating lunch in a police vehicle can be stressful. Officers are constantly in the public eye while patrolling, responding to calls and even taking breaks in their car. The anxiety that comes with that can take a toll on someone’s wellbeing, he says, but the room can provide a temporary escape.
“What if you had a really bad call, and you need a half hour away? Come over here and relax, get your head back together and then go back to work” Roebuck said.
In New Jersey, 37 officers died by suicide from 2016 to 2019, according to Blue Help, a non-profit that collects data on police suicides from the family and friends of victims. A little over 9% percent reported that the officer suffered “operational stress” stemming from the job prior to taking their lives.
Nationally, police suicides have been growing, according to Blue Help. The organization reported 228 suicides in 2019, up from 172 in the year prior. The group says the jump may not indicate an increase in suicides, but an increase in reporting.
Resiliency rooms are not the only answer, but a step in the right direction, said Steven Hough, a co-founder of Blue Help. He hopes to see more crop up.
The Las Vegas Police Department started a similar initiative in the 1980s, called the Public Employee Assistance Program, and some have popped up in Canada as well. And many departments today have chaplain programs, in which members’ local religious leaders support officers and civilians after crises.
The emergence of these programs shows police culture is changing, said Hough, an inspector with the Walton County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.
Cops often don’t talk about their mental health out of fear of being perceived as weak, Hough said.
“(Police) are still trying to work around a culture that, for the longest time, it was not agreeable to talk about yourself or how you’re hurting.” Those things were looked at as ‘You should just suck it up and drive on,’” Hough said. “The new generation is more apt to talk about their mental health.”
For Edward Nortrup’s family, his suicide came as an obvious shock.
They had seen few hints that he was in pain and said it appeared the 13-year police veteran felt fulfilled as he worked his way up the Roselle Park’s ranks, eventually joining the Union County Emergency Response Team.
Edward Nortrup never had substance abuse issues nor did he show signs of depression, his brother said. Like other officers, he believes Edward Nortrup would have suffered silently. He sees the resiliency room as a step in the right direction.
“Just talking to a lot of these officers, we wonder if they have a lot of the same feelings of being upset or stressed,” said Edward Nortrup’s sister-in-law Lauren. “Their mindset is to be strong and not open up.”
“I’m sure there are guys on his force that might be dealing with the same issues (Edward) was and I’m sure after the wake, their wives may have said ‘Are you okay? Are you stressed out? I don’t want to go through this with you,'” John Nortrup said. “Just because you’re getting help doesn’t mean you’re weak or can’t perform your job.”
“Everybody needs help at some point.”
“Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “
We couldn’t agree more.
Avalon Zoppo enjoys hearing from his readers – EMAIL Follow her on Twitter @AvalonZoppo and find NJ.com on Facebook.
This article was originally published by NJ.com. All photos by Patti Sapone, NJ Advance Media.
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