Chris and Michelle Panetta lost their close friend Nick Mencaroni, a New York City police officer, to suicide in January 2019. Now the Seaford couple is striving to raise mental health awareness and reduce the rising number of deaths by suicide among first responders.
Chris, 43, is an NYPD detective and Michelle, 34, is a Nassau County probation officer. The two started the nonprofit Beyond the Badge NY in September 2019, and have since hosted a number of community events and charitable efforts for first responders. On Memorial Day they are planning a barbecue for the officers of Mencaroni’s precinct in his memory.
“We want to let them know that even though Nick’s gone, his memory is still here,” Michelle said. “When somebody dies of suicide, the best thing to do for their loved ones is to keep their memory alive.”
This spring, Beyond the Badge is also hosting the inaugural Nick Mencaroni Memorial Scholarship, and will award $1,500 to family members of law enforcement officers who have died by suicide.
Michelle noted that there are many scholarships for family members of deceased law enforcement officials, but not one for those who commit suicide because it is not considered a death in the line of duty.
The Panettas are trying to change that. Down the line, they are looking to promote legislation that categorizes suicide as a death in the line of duty. First, however, they aim to raise awareness and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide.
According to a report conducted last year by the law enforcement support group Bluehelp.org, there were 578 suicides by law enforcement officers in the U.S. from Jan. 1, 2016, to June 31, 2019. In New York, they account for more than 9 percent of the state’s total suicides — the second-highest percentage in the country, after California, where the number is just over 9.5 percent. The report stressed that these are only the cases that have been reported. The number is thought to be higher.
While their nonprofit was the product of a personal loss, the Panettas have rallied behind a number of first responder suicides in the past two years, including Denis Mullaney Jr., who died on April 6. The 44-year old officer, whose family declined to have his hometown mentioned in the article, was the commanding officer of the NYPD’s 107th precinct in Flushing, Queens.
Beyond the Badge is collecting donations to support Mullaney’s widow and their 5-year-old son, Denis III, through the crowd-funding site Fund the First. In two weeks, their fundraising page reached $9,600.
Since she and Chris formed Beyond the Badge, Michelle said, support for the cause has skyrocketed. Roughly 30 people showed up for its first fundraiser, the Strikeout Suicide charity softball game in Baldwin Harbor Park on Oct. 10, 2019. They hosted the second softball game in 2020 and, despite coronavirus restrictions, had 70 attendees. This year’s game already has 150 people registered to participate.
“More officers are coming together to support this cause,” Michelle said. “We have a ton of people who reach out to us and ask for help finding mental health resources and services. And sometimes it’s not about fixing their problems, but listening to their stories, and letting them know that somebody cares about them, even if they feel like nobody does.”
This year’s Strikeout Suicide game is scheduled for Sept. 25 at Baldwin Harbor Park. Other upcoming events include a Cigars and Casino Night on June 17 at Westbury Manor. And in October, Beyond the Badge will host a private event/support group for families of first responders who have taken their own lives.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about how they died,” Michelle said. “It’s about how they lived.”
Submissions for the Nick Mencaroni Memorial Scholarship are due by June 30, and open to graduating seniors and college undergraduates who are relatives of law enforcement officials who died by suicide. Those who are interested can apply at www.beyondthebadgeny.org/scholarships.html.