Massachusetts Public Safety Unions Succeed In Passing New Law Protecting Confidentiality Of Stress Counseling For First Responders In Critical Incidents

At the end of December 2018, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed into law a new bill that provides important protections for first responders in critical incidents. The signing was the culmination of six years of work by the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Policy Group, which includes the major public safety unions in the Commonwealth. This year’s effort was spearheaded by the Massachusetts Coalition of Police (MassCOP), the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA), and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Association as part of a coalition of many different groups and interested individuals all pursuing the goal of providing protection to individuals involved in stressful critical incidents.

The law, which is entitled “An Act Relative to Critical Incident Intervention by Emergency Service Providers”, makes communications between emergency service providers, such as police officers, firefighters and EMTs, with crisis intervention personnel confidential and privileged (with certain exceptions). The purpose of the law is to allow first responders at critical incidents to obtain needed counseling and crisis intervention services without having to worry about whether conversations that occur in that context will later be disclosed. Without this law, a stress counselor or other crisis intervention specialist could be forced to testify in court about what a first responder said as part of counseling and treatment. The privilege created by this law is similar to the laws protecting confidentiality of conversations with psychotherapists. These laws recognize that the mental health of these individuals is a priority, and keeping the communications confidential will allow the individuals to participate fully in the counseling without having to worry about whether these conversations will be disclosed in future proceedings.

The law recognizes that stress and trauma experienced by police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other first responders when responding to critical incidents can cause serious long term psychological harm and, in the worst cases, lead to PTSD, substance abuse, and even suicide. Getting stress counselors and other crisis intervention personnel to the scenes of critical incidents to provide assistance to these first responders is crucial in preventing long-term harm, but such intervention will be more effective if all parties know that the communications made in the course of such intervention will be kept confidential.

The new law recognizes that in certain situations, the privilege will not apply. These include situations in which a crisis intervention specialist reasonably believes that the first responder: (1) is an imminent threat of harming himself or others; (2) has engaged in child abuse; or (3) has admitted to committing a crime or violating a law normally enforced by the public safety agency that employs him. The privilege would also not apply to crisis intervention specialists who were themselves first responders or witnesses to the critical incident, or to situations in which the first responder has disclosed the information to a third party (other than his attorney, spouse or psychotherapist).

Third time was a charm for this bill, as this was the third consecutive legislative session in which it was filed. Rep. Edward Coppinger of West Roxbury guided the bill through the committee process in the House, and Sen. Michael Moore carried it through the Senate. Also crucial to the process on the House side were Reps. Hank Naughton, Ted Speliotis, Dan Cahill, Tim Whelan, Tom Walsh and John Lawn. Leaders of the legislative effort, including Larry Calderone of the BPPA, John Nelson of MassCOP and Michael Muse of the Boston Detectives, met with the Governor, Lt. Governor, Speaker of the House DeLeo and Senate President Spilka, among others, to shepherd this bill to success this December.

The text of the law, which is now Chapter 329 of the Acts of 2018, can be found here.

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