In September 2019, New York City Police Department Detective Chris Panetta, 42, and his wife, Nassau County probation officer and college professor Michelle Panetta, 34, created Beyond the Badge NY, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating the stigma associated with mental health struggles in the law enforcement community, and combating the rise of suicides in the ranks. That month, they hosted a charity softball game in Baldwin Park in honor of those who had died, their families and officers who felt as if life had dealt them an 0-2 count.
The event last year drew a few dozen players and spectators combined, including two teams comprised of a mix of active police officers and law enforcement supporters.
On Sept. 26, Beyond the Badge NY returned to Baldwin Park for its second annual Strikeout Suicide charity softball game, and this time there was a crowd of several hundred, with four teams drawn from the ranks of the Nassau and Suffolk County Police Departments, the NYPD and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police, playing on adjacent fields — 60 officers in total.
This year the event featured merchandise stands, a DJ and food. The opening ceremonies included the Nassau County Police Emerald Society Pipe Band and remarks from Michelle Panetta.
“We realized that there needed to be a change, and change comes with us,” she said. “Change comes with every single one of us. We often tell people, ‘If you need anything, reach out.’ Well, we need to stop reaching out and need to start reaching in.” In January 2019, her husband’s longtime friend Nick Mencaroni, an NYPD officer, died of suicide.
All 60 officers on the field, Michelle continued, were there in support of Beyond the Badge’s cause. She then announced the creation of the Nicholas Mencaroni Memorial Scholarship Fund, to provide financial support to high school seniors entering college.
Then Panetta invited Mila Geraldi and Kristen Clifford to throw out the ceremonial first pitches. Geraldi is the daughter of NYPD officer Mike Geraldi, who died unexpectedly on Sept. 1 of a brain aneurysm while on the job. Clifford is the widow of Nassau officer Steve Clifford, who died by suicide in 2017, at age 35.
“I think the main reason why everybody is here is there’s a big problem in law enforcement,” said Frank Bokrosh, an officer in the NCPD’s 2nd Precinct. “There is a huge stigma attached to suicide and mental health. There are a lot of people that work in this field that are afraid to get help because they’re worried about their careers, what people will think. They’re worried about people assuming they’ll be less of a cop if they do try to get help.”
“This shows that we still come together,” said Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder. “There are members [of the police] that lose their life, not just in battles on the street, but the battles they take home. Breaking that stigma — this is what it’s all about.”
In the first two games, the NYPD took on the NCPD, while the Suffolk County police and the Port Authority police faced off on another field. When Ryder led off with a hit, cheers of “Let’s go, Commish!” could be heard from the NCPD dugout.
A couple of minutes later, Ryder crossed home plate, scoring the first run of the day. Over the next few hours, softballs were flying, with some officers showing their power, scorching them deep into the outfield, to loud cheers, while others made flashy plays on defense, drawing more loud cheers.
Afterward, all of the players signed bats and helmets that were given by Beyond the Badge to family members of fallen officers.
“It was nothing short of amazing, truly,” Michelle Panetta said the following day, reflecting on the event. “Sixty officers all there to stop suicide. As much as we’re trying to raise awareness, we want to honor the memory of those we lost too soon, so to have those families in attendance meant even more to all of us.”
Bridget Downes contributed to this story.