Last September, Chris and Michelle Panetta took on an important task. Chris, 42, a New York City Police detective, and Michelle, 34, a Nassau County probation officer, sought to put an end to police suicide, and to begin breaking down the stigma among law enforcement officials of acknowledging mental health struggles.
Inspired by the raw emotion of losing NYPD Officer Nick Mencaroni, a close friend of Chris’s, to suicide earlier last year, the Seaford pair started the nonprofit Beyond the Badge NY. Their first event was a softball game held last September at Baldwin Harbor Park to raise awareness of their cause. They called it the Strikeout Suicide Charity Softball Game.
The effort was such a success that, just a few months later, the Panettas started planning the second game at the park, scheduled for Sept. 26. September is National Suicide Awareness Month, and Sept. 26 is National Law Enforcement Suicide Awareness Day.
They secured the permit to use the park before the coronavirus pandemic struck. “Under Phase 4 there are very strict guidelines, but the Town [of Hempstead] approved our permits, so once they approved it, we were good to go,” Michelle said. “But I have to follow every guideline set in place.”
“Everyone has to [fill out] a questionnaire,” she said. “Everyone has to get their temperature checked. People will have to wear masks. They might not be happy about it, I know, but it is what is. I have disinfectant wipes in the dugout. If they share baseball bats like last year, bats [will be] wiped down after each use. . . . As soon as you walk in, there are going to be markings for when you walk to get food. The food is all individually wrapped.”
Beyond the Badge NY had been brainstorming ways to follow up on last year’s successful debut, and this year’s Strikeout Suicide Charity Game will be twice as big. Last year there were roughly 30 players, and this year there will be about 60. There will be four teams competing in a bracket-style tournament, instead of just two teams playing a single game. They will have the use of two fields. And the Panettas have booked double the pre-game ceremonies.
Last year, the two teams were a mix of NYPD officers and civilians, including some spouses of law enforcement officials. This year, the four teams will comprise NYPD officers, Nassau County Police Department officers, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police officers and Suffolk County Police Department and corrections officers.
“We also added some personal touches,” Michelle said. “Last year we had the Nassau County Pipes and Drums and Ceremonial Unit. … This year we also have someone singing the national anthem, and Kristen Clifford will throw out the first pitch.” Clifford’s husband, Steven, was an NYPD and NCPD officer who took his own life in 2017, at age 35.
When officers arrive at the park, they will walk through an arch made by the Baldwin Fire Department. They will also march past posters of the faces of fallen officers along the entrance trail. One of those faces will be Mencaroni’s, which Michelle Panetta admitted would be hard for her and Chris.
“It’s hard to be a cop right now,” she said. “Whether you’re a cop, a corrections officer, dispatcher, anything in the law enforcement field, it’s extremely difficult.”
“For us, I think we’re all starting to feel the effects of Covid-19 recently,” she added. “For the past four months, we’ve been working long, crazy hours. When things start to slow down, you feel the effects.”
Making connections with officers while they still have the ability to improve their frame of mind is Beyond the Badge NY’s primary concern. The Panettas want law enforcement officials to understand that anyone can feel hopeless in a tough situation, but they do not have to go through it alone.
“Recently, there was an NYPD suicide, and we reached out to the cop’s partner,” Michelle recounted. “I said who I was and that ‘I just want to see how you’re doing.’ He was so appreciative. He said it was nice to have another officer reach out. Yes, we want to raise awareness, but in order to raise that awareness level, you have to understand it. We need everyone in the job to come together.”