DeWitt: Program helps cops, families deal with trauma

Each year, about 150 police officers are killed in the line of duty. Their families and co-workers are left to cope with the consequences. Last week, members of Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS) -- a not-for-profit agency based in Missouri -- stopped in East Syracuse for a three-day conference. Its mission? To provide resources that help families and friends rebuild their lives after surviving a tragic loss. About 70 officers from New York and surrounding states participated.

Buffalo native and guest speaker Debbie Geary said COPS saved her life.

"You can have a negative life or a positive, and I looked for the positives," she said.

Geary lost her husband, Officer David Strazalkowski, during a felonious act in Florida that killed both him and another officer while on duty. Strazalkowski was shot in the head on Nov. 28, 1988. Geary was just six weeks pregnant with their second son. Asked how she got through it, Geary replied, "One day at a time."

"COPS was there for me, definitely," she said, adding that she knew nothing about the program prior to Strazalkowski's death. "It definitely was a way for me to become stronger."

The national conference tours the country seven times a year to address issues related to line-of-duty death and law enforcement victimization. The training, called "Traumas of Law Enforcement," is an educational program designed for agencies to put together policies, general orders and procedures to handle the traumas of law enforcement including death, police suicide and critical incident.

"It's unfortunate that we have to be here, but the information that's being presented will go a long way if an agency experiences one of these tragic events," said Captain Mark Petterelli of the DeWitt Police Department. "This will certainly help the agencies, not only help their own personnel, [but] it also goes to the next level. How do we help the family? The surviving spouses, children, parents?"

When COPS first began 24 years ago, it had 110 members. Today, more than 15,000 families have joined the program, according to its web site, nationalcops.org. Members include spouses, children, parents, siblings, significant others and affected co-workers of officers killed in the line of duty according to federal government criteria.

"You can't ever prepare [for a loved one's death], but to at least talk with their families about the dangerous and risk-full job that they're in -- that this could happen to them," Geary said. "It's the most devastating thing that they can go through."

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