CHARLOTTE, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — With police nationwide struggling to fill open positions, several retired CMPD officers tell Queen City News the department needs to address a vital issue crucial to the retention of officers.
That key issue is mental health.
QCN spoke with six retired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers, who all say officers are not getting the help they need on the beat. Some say it’s even worse when they turn in their badges.
Anne Steppe, the wife of one of the retired officers, agrees.
“The day we met, he was starting his career the next day,” she said.
Anne said she knew what she was getting into when she met her husband, Jon. Jon knew he was getting into a dangerous career field as well.
“My entire life, that’s what I wanted to do, from the time I could remember, to be a police officer,” Jon Steppe said.
That dream came true in December 1999 when Jon Steppe became a McDowell County Sheriff’s deputy. In 2008, he transferred to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department after stops in Cornelius, Union County, and the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office.
“I was a cop during 9-11, and the outpouring of support that we get from the community. You know, everyone loved us and [would] buy us coffee and give us hugs and stuff. And that changed a lot in the last couple of years,” Jon Steppe said.
What started as a dream career slowly became a nightmare for the couple.
“I would say the definite turning point for him came after his big shooting that he had,” Anne Steppe said.
Jon Steppe was involved in a nearly ten-minute shootout in Charlotte’s Steele Creek neighborhood in 2016. His partner survived a gunshot wound, but Jon’s life and demeanor changed. His wife of 22 years saw changes right away.
“He just began to shy away more and more from being around small, but definitely large groups; that was not going to happen,” Anne said.
Two days after the shootout, Jon returned to work. Anne was concerned it wasn’t enough time for him to recover properly.
“I was like, ‘I think you might need to talk to somebody,’ and ‘Why isn’t the department requiring you to go to counseling?’ Where’s the help?” Anne asked.
He eventually visited the CMPD psychologist for help.
“The psychologist said I wasn’t fit for duty due to my PTSD. And at that point, you know, they’re not going to let you work. So, I had to medically retire,” Jon Steppe said.
Costs adding up
Despite being out of the physical line of fire after retirement, he quickly was sent into the financial line of fire when his PTSD treatment bills started piling up.
“I lost insurance when I retired,” Jon Steppe said. “I couldn’t afford it. I had to get a secondary supplement insurance. And they won’t cover anything with mental health. So to this day, I’m weekly seeing a counselor, and I’m paying out of pocket.”
Jon says CMPD doesn’t offer affordable medical insurance for retired officers who joined the department after 2009. Since he started in 2008, Jon Steppe snuck into benefits through a grandfather clause, but he said the cost would’ve been astronomical.
“It would have been $1,000 a month or something for me to keep the retirement insurance,” Jon said.
Jon Steppe opted for private insurance. The costs were still high, and they didn’t cover PTSD treatments. As for how the department handles officers who think they might be struggling with PTSD, CMPD has outlined an action plan action. Jon doesn’t think they see it as a priority.
“A lot of these officers are asking for help. And showing warning signs, asking for help, and the department isn’t doing anything for them,” Jon said.
Jon left the police force in 2021. Even though he turned in his uniform, he continued to take calls for help. The ex-cop considers himself an unofficial liaison for officers dealing with mental health issues. He talks to them often, recommending references for treatment and psychological support.
“They might not be at the point where they need to medically retire,” Jon explained. “But saying, ‘Hey, who are you talking to, not only from CMPD or from these other agencies? Like, I need somebody that is going to understand, a psychologist or counselor who could understand what I’m going through.”
A new strategy
Former CMPD psychologist Dr. David Englert worked with officers from 2016 to 2021. Employed by Mecklenburg County, he specifically worked with the police department.
“At first, when I went to talk with [the department], what they really thought they wanted was a mental health provider to come and talk to folks,” Englert said. “And I said, ‘Well, we can do that. But we can train people to do that, right?’”
Englert proposed a new strategy for maintaining officers’ mental health, which focused on preparing them for traumatic events rather than treating them after incidents.
“How do we make them more resilient? How do we make them healthier? Emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, physically, that kind of thing,” Englert continued, “Certainly, people would come in and see me. I talked to several people one-on-one, but really the goal was to make them emotionally resilient before the event happened.”
Englert’s strategy seemed to work in 2019. CMPD had one of the best officer wellness programs in the country. Despite the positive recognition, officials replaced Englert and let him go after six years.
“CMPD, through the city, wanted to open up and have their own position and not have it be a county position,” Englert said.
CMPD is currently down around 350 officers, many of whom have retired or quit within the last couple of years.
Englert thinks the stigma surrounding mental health issues is still very real among many law enforcement agencies, though it has improved over time.
“In the police psychology community, there certainly appears to be a lot more emphasis on an officer’s wellness, officer mental health. And so it’s just really trying to get past some of that old stigma of, you know, suck it up, be a man, don’t talk about your problems,” Englert said.
CMPD says it values its officers
For Anne, her goals go beyond just breaking the stigma. It’s about preventing other wives and husbands from watching their spouses lose a piece of themselves to their job.
“These are not broken bones,” Anne said. “They are broken hearts and minds and souls of these men and women.”
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department is down hundreds of officers – about 15% of their overall force. Many have resigned or retired in the last few years.
The overarching theme among the six retired officers comes down to a lack of value during their service and a feeling of abandonment when they leave.
Maj. Bradford Koch said the CMPD values its officers’ mental health and well-being.
“It’s certainly a priority for us, as a department, as executive leadership within the department, to make sure that every single person, you know, is in the right headspace and that they’re, and that they’re, you know, good to go,” Major Koch said.
Koch pointed out employee wellness is in Chief Johnny Jennings’ “Core Four” — his top core values implemented in the department. Koch said CMPD puts those words into action with various programs and protocols.
“Every officer meets with a sergeant on a daily basis at their roll call,” Koch said. “The sergeant’s responsibility is to make sure that they are having that one-on-one connection with the officers and recognize the need for them to talk to someone. We have a psychologist on staff for CMPD.”
Koch also talked about additional resources, like an employee wellness program and peer support that utilizes officers and sergeants who have received additional training on talking to and being there for officers.
An unpleasant experience
Former CMPD officer Aaron Partridge experienced peer support firsthand when he struggled with mental health.
“That was a very unpleasant experience for me because who was assigned to me made it worse,” Partridge explained. “I think I told him I was having problems with my shooting and dealing with all the riots over the years.”
Ultimately, it didn’t help at all.
“That person’s response was, ‘I’ve killed three people, don’t bother me.’”
In April 2021, doctors diagnosed Partridge with major depressive disorder and PTSD.
“I sat in my closet for eight hours, a walk-in closet, with my gun in my hand, debating about whether to shoot myself or not,” Partridge said.
After 22 years of wearing the uniform, Aaron retired on May 1, 2022. He describes his time as a police officer as more of an identity than just a job. But Aaron’s new identity shifted over the years after responding to countless help calls and witnessing the worst of humanity.
One particular call still lingers with the former officer. A woman pushed her dead, sixth-month baby into his arms only to learn the father had committed incest with the child.
No medication or treatment will ever make Partridge forget that encounter, but he’s trying everything possible to reduce the symptoms of his PTSD and depression. Yet treatment costs continue to pile up, with health insurance cut off by the City of Charlotte right after retirement.
“If you can’t get health care for me, then at least cover therapy and mental health meds,” Partridge continued, “You [the city] helped contribute to what I have and my diagnosis, but yet you refuse to acknowledge you have any part in it, or to help at all. I get money’s tight, budgets. I understand that. I’ve worked for government my whole life. I know how it works. But you don’t abandon the people who work for you the longest.”
Where are the answers?
Any change in current policy would have to come from the city, not the police department.
QCN reached out to Charlotte City Manager Marcus Jones on Oct. 19 and requested an interview without a direct response.
Later, QCN got an email from Charlotte media relations manager Lawrence Corley III.
Corely said all interview requests needed to go through him. For the next four months, QCN emailed Corley’s office on Oct. 19, Nov. 22, Nov. 29, Dec. 7, and Jan. 4. Corley, nor anyone from his office, responded to the Jones interview request.
Corley sent information regarding the city’s benefits policy. The City of Charlotte only offers health insurance to officers who started working for the department before 2009 and have served for at least ten years. For officers hired after 2009, the city gives them ten dollars a week for their health reimbursement plan.
Partridge says he spends hundreds of dollars monthly on therapy and medications with private insurance.
“North Carolina doesn’t recognize worker’s comp cases for mental health. And so we’re one of the few places where there’s no help,” Partridge said.
Other officers share their experiences
According to public records, 104 officers have retired because of a disability since 2002. Those records don’t specify if retirement were physical or mental.
Retired CMPD officer Prince Blue was also diagnosed with PTSD. Blue thinks the department’s response to officers struggling is strictly a numbers game.
“If you got ten officers that say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling good. I’m not feeling right,’ then you take them off the street,” Blue said. “And then the police department is really short. So I get it. They’re trying to protect their bottom line. They’re trying to keep as many boots on the street.”
“But if those boots aren’t reliable, then is it really doing you good in the long run?”
Current CMPD officer Kristina Frazita, a 19-year veteran, thinks the department provides all the resources necessary to get officers the help they need.
“When I first started, there was a little bit of stigma,” Frazita said. “We didn’t really talk about mental health. I think today; it’s so normalized. Like the major was talking about, if you’re struggling, you know, where help is. You know, how to get help, the services, the resources.”
The resources are there, but officers are only required to utilize some of them.
Kayvan Hazrati said the stigma’s still there.
“They’ll tell you, you know, we got an open door policy. But, you know, you go and talk to somebody. You’re now somebody that’s cuckoo, and nobody wants to work with you anymore,” the former officer said.
Hazrati retired in 2009 after being shot in the head while serving a warrant. The shooting left him with a permanent brain injury. Hazrati’s lawyers spent years in mediation with city attorneys for worker’s compensation. He, like many retired officers, still struggles with PTSD.
“Jon and I went to a restaurant a few weeks ago,” Hazrati said. “We looked around, and we both had the same thought. If only these people here knew what CMPD officers go through on a daily basis. They’re in the dark; they don’t know. They don’t know we’re 350 officers short right now.”
Recruitment has been challenging for CMPD for the last few years, but Koch says this problem is common to police forces nationwide. He attributed the deficit to the implementation of 30-year retirements nationwide in 1993.
“The individuals who gave 30 years to the City of Charlotte and our community are enjoying the fruits of their retirement,” Koch said. “But we also had the summer of 2020, which was certainly a challenge for us.”
Steppe was one of the many officers who chose to leave CMPD in the fall of 2020.
“There was no one from the administration, no command staff from the Police Department checked on me, no one said thanks for your service or good luck with retiring, nothing, no communication whatsoever,” Steppe said.
The officer said the department’s lack of communication after retirement was perplexing.
“I thought we were this big family, that we take care of each other, and your struggle is my struggle, and I just felt it made my PTSD worse, just feeling abandoned and alone. As you know, I’ve given my entire life to this organization and to this job, [this] community, and then I’m just kind of cast aside and forgotten,” Steppe said.
According to the Ruderman Family Foundation, police officers are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty. In North Carolina, 48 officers have taken their own lives since 2017.
For officers looking for help, Presby Psych offers FREE mental health counseling to first responders. You can access the counseling here.