Why the Paterson PD is now using ‘comfort dogs’ to boost cops’ mental health

PATERSON — Justin Kimble, an officer with the Paterson Police Department for the past 18 years, recalled being lunged at by a knife-wielding man having a mental health crisis.

Hours after filing his report on that incident, Kimble said, he was back on patrol, assigned to another case.

“We see a lot of crazy stuff,” Kimble said. “But we don’t have time to process what we go through.”

Among the new initiatives being implemented under the state takeover of the Paterson Police Department has been the creation of a health and wellness division, an effort officials hope will remove the stigma that seeking mental health help traditionally has had in law enforcement circles.

Dave, a black labrador retriever, and his handler, Daniela Garcia, greet officer Justin Kimble at Paterson Police headquarters.
Dave, a black labrador retriever, and his handler, Daniela Garcia, greet officer Justin Kimble at Paterson Police headquarters.

Under the direction of Officer-in-Charge Isa Abbassi, two new “comfort dogs” joined the department in August. The two trained Labradors — Yoda and Dave — now have free rein of the Police Department headquarters during certain hours of the day.

Paterson Press saw the playful pups sprint to the door when Kimble was returning from an assignment. The dogs wrestled each other and turned on their backs to invite belly rubs.

But don’t be fooled by these playful antics. The dogs have undergone rigorous training.

“These dogs are trained with over 90 commands, including 10 specific to help someone that has some sort of mental health problems — it could be anxiety, depression or PTSD,” said Yoda’s handler, Officer Justin Schmid.

Idea for dogs came from NYPD

The idea for the comfort dogs came from the New York Police Department, where Abbassi worked for more than 25 years before taking his current job in Paterson earlier this year.

The purpose is to lighten the atmosphere and create opportunities for interventions, something that wasn’t part of police culture in the past, Kimble said. This is the first of several planned initiatives that will eventually include establishing peer support officers who are trained to act as in-house counselors, he said.

“My generation didn’t have that option,” said Kimble, who joined the force in 2005. “We didn’t think to tell someone we were stressed out.”

Abbassi believes this new approach could improve the longevity and performance of his men and women in uniform.

Schmid and his partner, Daniela Garcia, who handles Dave, also take the dogs to school assemblies and on patrol around the city, particularly along Broadway, where Abbassi has paired heightened police presence with community-building efforts.

One of his stated goals is to reduce fear and rebuild trust in the community, including through a recent event with students at School 16.

School 16 teacher Christopher Downs pets Dave, a black lab who is a member of the Paterson Police Department, after a recent school assembly.
School 16 teacher Christopher Downs pets Dave, a black lab who is a member of the Paterson Police Department, after a recent school assembly.

“We want their first encounter with a police officer to be a positive one,” Rob Rowan, public information officer for the department, said before a recent school assembly. “A lot of time people encounter a police officer on the worst day of their life.”

After the assembly, Christopher Downs, a special ed teacher at School 16, said many inner-city youths learn to fear dogs.

“That could be from a trauma they had early in life,” Downs said. “The kids are seeing that dogs can be used to help the community — it’s a good thing.”

Although the dogs wear vests with the invitation “I’m Friendly Please Pet Me”stitched on them, they still get mistaken for the K-9 unit, and occasionally a passerby will ask the officers if a crime is happening nearby, Garcia said.

“That’s when we get to open up a conversation about mental health and how important it is to us as officers and for the community,” Garcia said.

Public safety: Alex Alicea makes history, sworn in as Paterson’s first Latino fire chief

New legal action: The struggle for control of the Paterson police is getting uglier. A new lawsuit shows why

An effort to help build trust with the community

Trust-building has been one of the priorities emphasized by Abbassi. The state takeover happened just weeks after the police shooting death of Najee Seabrooks, who while going through a mental health crisis wielded a knife and lunged at officers in riot gear after a lengthy standoff. That incident further eroded public confidence in the Police Department, especially because Seabrooks had been a violence intervention worker at the Paterson Healing Collective group.

Liza Chowdhury, the head of the Healing Collective, wouldn’t say whether she thinks the comfort dogs will improve policing in Paterson. She said she wants to see the city allocate more funding to mental health resources and professionals who are better trained to deal with those in crisis.

“Mental health professionals and people that are trained in crisis, even programs like ours, take a different approach,” Chowdhury said. “We have to think about the root causes of mental health — it takes more targeted investment in that kind of work.”

Whether the dogs will result in more Paterson police officers seeking help with mental health issues remains to be seen.

“There just isn’t much written about it,” admits Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation.

Still, Douglas believes it’s a “healthy concept” and fosters a sense of support among law enforcement, which he said is crucial, given the perceived lack of support from the community.

“If we’re going to get any support or comfort, it’s going to have to come from within the organization,” Douglas said. “We’re not like firefighters — we’re different. We’re an authoritative figure.”

Douglas founded his organization in 1997 after a fellow officer killed himself. He said that during his two-decade career in the Baltimore Police Department, his precinct took in a street dog. “It was a real sense of release,” Douglas said. “I think it’s a healthy concept.”

Kimble said the state takeover of the department was met with initial uneasiness, but he likes the direction the department is taking with these new measures and believes they will improve his relationships outside of work.

“Without mental health, it starts to carry over to your personal life,” he said.

Darren Tobia is a contributing writer for Paterson Press.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Why police in Paterson NJ are now using 'comfort dogs'