WINDSOR, NY — Police officers don’t like the word “routine.” Any call, any night that seems routine can suddenly turn bad.
It was one of those nights that changed Frank Abbott’s life forever.
On Jan. 2, 2018, Abbott and his partner, both New York state troopers, attempted to stop a man with an active arrest warrant as he drove through a residential neighborhood in Binghamton, N.Y.
The man didn’t stop. Instead, he led the officers on a high-speed chase through snowy streets, nearly striking a child in a stroller before he crashed into a utility pole. When Abbott and his partner got out of their vehicles, the man took off again, swerving up onto a sidewalk and coming to a sudden stop in a parking lot.
The fugitive’s car was stuck on a concrete parking block. Abbott approached the vehicle.
Abbott’s memory of what happened next is hard to put back together — each piece a fragment of the picture. The car as it roared toward him. The crunch of wheel over bone as the car crushed his ankle. The sight of the car accelerating toward his partner.
Abbott pulled himself off the ground, raised his gun and fired one round, striking the man in the face.
“I thought I was going to die,” Abbott said. “I was in a state of panic. But still, my body reacted and I did what I had to do, even though in my head I felt like, ‘I’m not going to make it out of this.'”
To Abbott, it felt like time stood still. His partner was unhurt. The driver, though gravely injured, sped off again — only to be arrested after trying to hijack a vehicle.
Abbott recalls little about what happened next. But one memory remains. As the emergency response vehicles lit up the snow-covered yards, a woman helped Abbott sit down on a porch and laid a blanket over his shoulders.
“Oh my god,” he thought. “I just shot someone.”
Abbott had dreamed of being a state trooper since he was 12 years old. He was only 28, had just eight years on the job, and planned on serving at least another 20.
He had no idea how the trauma he experienced that night, and what he says was his agency’s failure to help him recover, would cut that dream short.
“I felt angry that I spent eight years of my life taking care of others,” Abbott said. “And it took so long to find someone who would help me.”
That someone was another police officer, on patrol nearly 200 miles away, who had devoted his life to helping cops like Abbott.
“There isn’t a cop in this country that I wouldn’t work with, go through a door with and be right by their side,” said Jim Banish, 43. “We’re in this fight together.”
Every year, the number of police officers who die by suicide outpaces deaths in the line of duty. No federal agency tracks the data, but one non-profit estimates that at least 167 police officers died by suicide last year.
Studies show that first responders suffer from high rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Police officers are exposed daily to the kind of trauma that can trigger PTSD, from fatal accidents to homicide scenes, but they’re often reluctant to admit they need mental health care because of the stigma. They’re afraid of being discriminated against, of losing their guns and badges, and their identities. Despite all of that, Abbott, who was diagnosed with PTSD after the shooting, decided to ask the New York State Police for help.
He didn’t get it, he said.
He is now suing the agency and his captain under the Americans with Disabilities Act, alleging the agency failed to accommodate his PTSD, and subjected him to relentless harassment to return to work, making his symptoms worse.
The New York State Police said they could not comment on Abbott’s case, but a spokesperson said that “the health and safety of our members is always a top priority.” The captain did not return requests for comment.
“I wanted to go back to work,” Abbott said. “I wanted to heal. I wanted to get better.”
“This has been the worst place in my life,” he added. “I’ve found myself wishing that I had died that night.”
‘I needed hope’
That night, after being released from the hospital, Abbott laid awake in bed.
He felt disassociated from his body. Almost catatonic.
“I just didn’t feel anything,” he said. “My whole head was spinning. I shot someone. My job’s over. My career’s done.”
Within 72 hours, the Broome County District Attorney cleared Abbott of wrongdoing. Ultimately, the man that Abbott shot would plead guilty to aggravated assault on a police officer. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
But that didn’t ease his anxiety.
“Just because my shooting was ruled justified, doesn’t mean I’m okay with what happened,” he said. “I don’t think humans are meant to hurt each other.”
“Every interview I’ve ever had they ask, ‘If you become a police officer, will you be willing to use deadly physical force to save your life, or save the life of someone else, and every time I said, ‘Yes,'” he added. “I knew I could do it. But I didn’t know how it would affect me afterward.”
Abbott went on medical leave. He began having night terrors. Loud noises, the smell of burning rubber and other triggers set off flashbacks and panic attacks. Some days he felt like he could barely move. Other days he was hypervigilant, constantly scanning the horizon for any sign of a threat. The orthopedic injuries he sustained — he would have to have at least two surgeries on his knee — made Abbott feel like he’d never recover.
He began to isolate himself from his wife, Michelle. He didn’t want her to know the details of what happened, or how he felt.
“I thought I was protecting her, but I was really hurting her and myself,” he said. “It put a wall between us and made me feel more alone.”
Abbott had no idea what it was like to cope with a mental health condition. He had never been depressed or anxious. Compounding the pain he felt was a gnawing feeling of shame.
“I had most of my life invested in law enforcement,” he said. “It just was out of my control. I felt helpless.”
But in the days following the shooting, Abbott said his supervisors asked little, if at all, about his mental health.
“They asked about my physical injuries,” he said. “They didn’t refer me to any mental health resources. It was, ‘Hey, how you doing.’ Like a box to check. Not, ‘Is everything okay? Are you sleeping at night?'”
“I didn’t need to be committed,” he added. “I needed hope. I needed resources. I needed someone who could start a path toward something.”
Like other law enforcement agencies, the New York State Police has an Employee Assistance Program, that a police officer can draw upon to find a psychologist, a rehabilitation program, or other resources.
According to a spokesperson for the New York State Police, the EAP “is available 24 hours a day and responds to all critical incidents, including the one that injured Trooper Abbott. Our EAP services are available to any employee at any time, as requested by either the employee, a family member or a co-worker.”
Abbott said he asked the EAP for help finding a psychologist, but didn’t get a call back for two weeks. Eventually, he was referred to a psychologist who practiced two hours away.
He realized he would have to find help himself. It took weeks, and dozens of rejections by providers who didn’t take state worker’s compensation, but he finally found one an hour and a half drive from his home. That psychologist diagnosed him with PTSD.
That’s when the harassment began, Abbott said.
In meetings and in calls with his captain, Abbott said he was shouted at, made fun of and pressured to come back to work, despite his diagnosis and the severity of his symptoms. He said his captain pressed him to push his doctors to sign paperwork clearing him to come back to work.
“I’d say, ‘I’m listening to my doctors and when I can come back, I’ll come back,'” he said.
In April 2018, as Abbott walked out of one of his first therapy appointments, his phone rang. It was his captain.
“He said to me, ‘This is bullshit,'” Abbott said. “You need to come back.'”
By this time, he said, rumors were starting to swirl around the barracks that he was making up symptoms in order to get a medical retirement. The pressure he felt to get back into uniform and the shame he felt for not being able to, weighed on his chest like a pile of rocks.
“I was angry,” he said. “I was hurt.”
Despite reporting the incident to the EAP, he said, the calls and aggressive behavior continued.
At therapy, he said, “We’d spend the whole time talking about what the captain did, what the sergeant did, what’s being said about you at work. Not about the actual incident.”
His breaking point came in May 2018, when he called to reschedule a meeting with his captain.
According to Abbott, his captain said, “Not to be a dick, but it’s not like you were blown up by an IED” — an improvised explosive device like the kind U.S. troops in Iraq have faced.
Abbott muted his cell phone and screamed.
“For him to say that, it devastated me,” he said.
That night, he searched online for the least painful way to die by suicide.
“I felt like, you know what, my work doesn’t support me, my EAP doesn’t support me, I felt like I had nothing,” Abbott said. “I had been a police officer since I was 20 years old. This has been my whole life. I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost coworkers. I was at the end.”
Then he met Jim Banish.
‘You’ve got one chance’
Jim Banish and his brother Joseph shared everything. Identical smiles that could light up a room. Dreams, hatched during childhood, of becoming police officers.
In 2008, Banish received a call that would re-chart the course of his life.
Lieutenant Joseph Banish had been found dead at home, in his gray New York State Police uniform. He committed suicide with his service weapon.
Banish knew his brother had been suffering. But Joseph had sworn him to secrecy.
“I asked him to reach out to the people that he should reach out to, but he didn’t want anybody in his agency knowing,” he said. “He was afraid that they’d take away his gun and his badge and his rank. Which is what most people think when they go through this.”
“I knew it was going downhill,” he added. “But I didn’t know how to stop it.”
Banish had been a county police officer near Albany, N.Y., for 10 years. Like so many other officers, he couldn’t extricate his identity from his job. Just weeks after he helped plan his own brother’s funeral, he forced himself back to work.
His first call was a fatal car accident involving two girls from a local high school.
After identifying the passengers, Banish got back into his patrol car and began to shake.
“I’m going to get fired,” he remembered thinking. “There’s no way I can be a police officer anymore if I can’t do my job. I have to make sure they don’t think I’m crazy.”
He took a deep breath and went back to the scene.
As the days passed and he continued to respond to calls, he pushed his feelings as far down as he could. The suicides, Banish said, bothered him the most.
“I was mad at them,” he said. “Mad at them for putting their pain on their loved ones.”
One man committed suicide with a firearm in front of Banish. Afterward, he told his Sheriff he was fine. Just another day at work, he said.
But all the while, the man beneath the uniform was slowly being stripped away.
“All those incidents, those fatals, the suicides, the shootings, everything,” Banish said. “It’s an erosion. You look at any police officer at 10 years or five years, 15 years, you will see an erosion of a person.”
He started having nightmares. He felt angry all the time. But Banish was afraid of what could happen to his career if he admitted he was struggling. So he kept silent, and he drank to cope.
One night, about two years after Joseph died, Banish decided he had had enough. He sat on the edge of his bed.
Then he thought of his mother.
“I didn’t want my mom to lose another son,” he said.
He picked up the phone and called another cop.
“I remember saying, ‘You’ve got one chance, because I’m not going to make it,'” Banish said.
That officer set him up with a psychologist, who also happened to be a retired police officer.
As he worked with his therapist, he began to understand himself better — why he was in so much pain, and how the loss of his brother, and the daily devastation he bore witness to as a police officer, was affecting him.
His recovery led him to question the culture that prevented him from asking for help in the first place.
“I thought this is ridiculous that police officers, we have to hide, we have to do this in silence,” he said. “There’s nobody to help us. We’re exposed to so much trauma and so much death and devastation, and the old school thinking is, ‘That’s your job and that’s what you get paid to do.”
Banish didn’t know it at the time, but he would end up devoting the rest of his life to changing that.
The old Frank, and the new Frank
The Frank Abbott that Michelle Abbott met nearly a decade ago was romantic. Funny. A rookie police officer passionate about his work and the life he wanted to build.
The new Frank, though, she said, is one trigger away from a bad day. It’s painful for him to be in crowds. It takes planning, now, to do the things they used to do — even something as simple as going out to eat.
Post-traumatic stress disorder has a way of doing that. It can turn a big life small, mute colors, render the world flat.
“I know it’s part of his illness,” Michelle, 27, said. “It’s changed him almost completely.”
In the weeks after the shooting, Michelle watched helplessly as her husband deteriorated. She struggled to figure out how to be more than a bystander to a loved one with PTSD.
“He was different after the accident,” she said. “He didn’t talk to me about anything, and kept to himself a lot, which was really hard. I didn’t know how to handle him and how to treat him, how to help him.”
There is no manual for being the wife of a police officer, and aside from a few Facebook groups, few resources for women like her. As her husband grew worse, their support network — comprised largely of other police officers and their families — shrank.
“Cop Frank, he wants to be in control of the situation, but in reality, he’s spiraling out of control,” Abbott said. “I didn’t want her to see what I had become.”
But he couldn’t shield her from reality.
“I knew he was struggling and not getting the help he needed,” Michelle said.
One night last spring, Michelle walked down the basement stairs, holding their infant son, Henry, in her arms. She’d taken to giving him his space, but he’d been downstairs watching TV for a long time.
She found him on the couch, holding a bottle of whiskey.
“He was crying,” she said. “He was just so upset, and talking about not wanting to live, and not wanting to continue.”
She knelt next to him and cradled their child in her hands. “You have so much to live for,” she said. “‘He needs a father.'”
“I never wanted my wife to see that side of me,” Abbott said.
‘Just a dumb cop’
As Jim Banish learned more about mental health and the effects of trauma, he began to share his knowledge with other officers who needed help. Word spread. He began receiving calls and texts, at all hours of the day and night, from police officers across New York.
“We see more in our career than most people do in two lifetimes,” Banish said. “And we’re left to live with it. But there’s no way to hide. That stuff’s going to come out.”
Sometimes a cop just needed to talk to someone who got it. Sometimes they needed a therapist who understood law enforcement, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program, or an advocate to accompany them to meetings with their agency.
Sometimes they were fighting suicidal thoughts and needed help immediately.
He decided that when it came to helping other police officers, he would do whatever it took to make sure they got what they needed.
“Then they know that I’m not bs-ing them when I say, ‘I’ve got your back and when I say I’m going to be there with you, I’m going to be there with you,'” he said.
“I’m just a dumb cop from Buffalo,” he added. “But I’m persistent. I won’t stop.”
In practice, that meant that, in addition to his day job working as a patrol officer, Banish spent every moment he could either on the phone with, or meeting, a police officer in need. His insomnia became an asset. The work, which felt like a debt he owed to his brother’s memory, took on a life of his own.
“I’ll never let him be forgotten,” he said.
The model of peer-support that Banish was developing had been implemented in some agencies for years. Police officers, by nature skeptical of both the institutions they work for and of anyone who isn’t a cop, are often more likely to open up to their peers — men and women who understand the job, the culture and the stigma that first responders face.
“I’m not a psychologist,” Banish said. “Take my uniform off and put me in a room full of police officers and I wouldn’t get one person to call me. But if I throw a gun and badge on my side, and walk in with my story, every one of those guys and girls will call. It’s a matter of trust.”
A trained peer counselor can serve not just as someone to talk to, but as an advocate who can help a police officer navigate the bureaucracies — whether internal or external — that can obscure the path to recovery.
By 2017, Banish was working patrol for the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, a law enforcement agency that covers the north country around Lake George, N.Y. One morning, he was fighting a feeling of dread growing in his stomach. He’d been called into a meeting by his sheriff, Bud York. Banish hadn’t gotten home until three that morning because he had driven six hours round trip to drop off an officer at a rehabilitation program.
Sheriff York told Banish that all his extracurricular work was leaving the platoon short.
“I said, ‘Sheriff, I’ll do whatever,'” Banish said. “‘Just please don’t take what I have away from me. I’m not asking for anything. I’ll do all this on my own time.'”
Sheriff York stopped him. He told Banish that he was being promoted to peer support coordinator. He’d be allowed to continue his work not only for Warren County, but for any officer, and any agency, in New York that needed him.
The following year, Banish started a non-profit called NYLEAP — the New York Law Enforcement Assistance Program. Like its sister organizations in South Carolina and Virginia, among other states, NYLEAP provides immediate assistance to police officers who need it, and also trains first responders to work as peer advocates.
Banish and his colleagues, through NYLEAP, also consult with law enforcement agencies across the country, and hold Post-Critical Incident Seminars, where first responders and military can learn about the effects of trauma, connect with other peers, and meet with trained clinicians.
It was that network that ultimately set Abbott on a path to recovery.
‘He saved my life’
Just like Banish did that night when he picked up the phone in his bedroom, Abbott made one last attempt to get help.
He called his former partner in Virginia, where he had worked for two years as a Norfolk city cop before he joined the New York State Police. Told him how tired he was of trying to get better.
His partner told him about VALEAP, which was established in 2008 in the wake of the Virginia Tech mass shooting, and the murder of two detectives by an armed man in Fairfax County. He invited Abbott to attend a seminar.
“It was amazing,” Abbott said. “Everyone shares their story. They don’t tell you it’s to fix you, it’s to give you resources. To give you coping mechanisms to set you on the right path.”
Afterward, he emailed NYLEAP.
“I said, ‘I need help,'” Abbott said. “I’m not getting it.”
Jim Banish “fired back right away,” he added.
The men began to meet. Banish kept up constant contact with Abbott. They texted at all hours. Banish regularly drove nearly three hours each way to meet with Abbott and Michelle at home.
“We all think we’re going through it by ourselves,” Banish said. “Because no one else talks about it. He thought he was alone. I said, ‘Frank, this is common. We’re going to get you through this. And I guarantee you, you’re going to be better than when you started.'”
Banish’s independence, Abbott said, is part of what made him trustworthy. His assistance is confidential. Independent. No internal politics.
“He serves no other purpose other than to make sure that me, my wife and my family are taken care of,” Abbott said. “There’s no hidden agenda.”
Abbott began to rely on Banish not only for help coping with PTSD, but with the hard decisions he would have to make about his future with the New York State Police. What would a life outside law enforcement be like?
Banish suggested Abbott try a rehabilitation program in Vermont for first responders. Abbott wasn’t sure. So Banish drove three hours to Windsor, picked Abbott up, drove him four hours to Vermont to show him the program, and turned around and dropped him off at home again so he could think about it.
“I know what it’s like to go through treatment,” Banish said. “I knew the things he was worried about and the things he was scared of.”
Abbott decided to go. The next week, Banish drove him to Vermont again.
“I wasn’t mentally, physically prepared to go myself,” Abbott said. “Walking through those doors was hard enough. He stayed with me through the whole intake process.”
Though Abbott completed the program, recovery from PTSD and other mental health conditions is not linear. It takes time.
Today, as Abbott goes to the therapeutic appointments that fill his weeks, Banish is always in close touch, ready to drive him to a meeting or lend an ear.
Recently, as a summer afternoon would to a close, the two men sat together in Abbott’s kitchen, reflecting on how far he’s come.
“He did all the work himself,” Banish said. “He’s a tough son of a bitch.”
“I would trust Jim with my life,” Abbott said.
‘You’re not alone’
Abbott is unsure whether he’ll return to law enforcement, the occupation he has built his life around. He still feels discouraged, anxious and angry, and his symptoms have not gone away. But with treatment, Abbott said, the vice grip PTSD once had on him has lessened.
It pains him to know that his son will likely never see him in uniform. But he’s determined to recover. To be the best husband and father he can be.
Banish reminds Abbott that, no matter what, policing isn’t worth his life. That the darkness he’s caught in now is temporary.
“I know because I’ve been there,” Banish said. “Things are going to change. And if you can get through that temporary moment, that time when it’s the worst, it’s going to get better. It’s not going to be like this forever.”
For perhaps the first time in a long time, Abbott believes that.
“I can’t go back to the person I was,” he said. “But there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”