Alarms sound after 6 Chicago PD suicides in 8 months

With the loss of six LEOs by suicide since last summer, national experts are calling for immediate action to understand what's going on and what needs to be done


By Madeline Buckley and Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A dozen or so police officers gather once every month in the basement of an office building and talk — about handling holidays with families, about nightmares so bad they are reluctant to share a bed at night.

Most of the officers were involved in a shooting while on duty, and here they share stories of what that has meant. Sometimes they cry.

Police from Chicago's western suburbs attend a presentation on suicide given by Dr. Carrie Steiner, Psy.D., a licensed clinical/police psychologist, in McCook, Ill., on March 14, 2019. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Police from Chicago's western suburbs attend a presentation on suicide given by Dr. Carrie Steiner, Psy.D., a licensed clinical/police psychologist, in McCook, Ill., on March 14, 2019. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

“This is what trauma looks like,” says Carrie Steiner, a former Chicago cop turned therapist who runs the counseling center. “This is what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) looks like.”

Responding to that trauma is now a top challenge for the Chicago Police Department, where alarms are sounding after six officers killed themselves over the last eight months.

Last week, after the most recent suicide, Superintendent Eddie Johnson convened a small meeting of command staff and told them officer wellness was now his priority. To keep neighborhoods safe, his officers need to be healthy, he told the group.

Johnson formed a task force to examine the department’s mental health services, according to his spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi, who was at the meeting.

And in a sign of changing attitudes, Johnson also sent his officers a note about the latest death, saying, “we must do everything we can to ensure that our fellow officers have the support needed to get through the challenges of this very difficult job.”

Such acknowledgment of suicide among the ranks — even in private messages to his officers — is something Johnson has started doing only recently, Guglielmi said.

All this comes two years after the U.S. Justice Department warned the department that its care of officers was severely lacking.

Now, with the loss of six officers by suicide since last summer, national experts are calling for immediate action to understand what is going on and what needs to be done.

“It’s definitely worrying and suggestive of a problem I think really demands attention,” said Florida State University professor Thomas Joiner, a leading researcher on suicide who was in Chicago this week for a forum on suicide in law enforcement.

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Since 2011, the number of Chicago police officers who have died by suicide each year has fluctuated between two and four. But the pace quickened last summer, and the department has experienced nearly a suicide a month since July.

Two detectives, three officers, a sergeant. They were assigned to the mass transit unit and technical services, they were assigned to districts and worked as investigators.

Five were men, and the average age was 43. All but one died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. One died by carbon monoxide poisoning inside a car. Three either were in their squad car or parked outside their district station.

While suicide in general is on the rise in the United States, research suggests there is an elevated risk for suicide among law enforcement. One 2013 analysis found the risk for officers was as much as 69 percent higher.

Nowhere is that risk more apparent than in Chicago.

“Chicago is kind of like ground zero with the number of suicides that are happening on a monthly basis now at this point,” said Daniel Hollar, who chairs the department of behavior and social science studies at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. “These are people who are answering calls of duty to protect lives. We (need to) do our job to make their jobs safer.”

Hollar is organizing the forum in Chicago. Among the issues up for discussion is what role Chicago’s relentless violence problem plays in officer suicide. Hollar said they will also talk about other factors, including whether familiarity with death makes suicidal officers more likely to follow through with their plans.

The urgency to understand what is happening — nationally, not just in Chicago — is supported by national figures showing more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

In 2016, 171 officers across the country were killed in the line of duty, while 140 committed suicide. In 2018, 163 died by suicide and 150 in the line of duty, according to Blue HELP, an organization launched four years ago to raise awareness about officers’ mental health.

“I think it’s a call to action, a wake-up call, telling our administrators (and) command staff: ‘Isn’t it time you do something?’” said Nicholas Greco, who serves on the organization’s board and trains departments and officers on wellness.

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The most recent suicide to hit the department occurred on March 10 when an off-duty Chicago police detective was found dead from a gunshot wound at his Near West Side home.

But this time was different.

In the days that followed, Superintendent Johnson met with a small group that included Robert Sobo, head of the department’s employee assistance program, and Chief Barbara West, in charge of the Bureau of Organizational Development. He told those gathered that the most important thing now facing him as superintendent is officer wellness and suicide, Guglielmi said.

“If they are not well,” Johnson said, “I can’t expect them to safeguard our neighborhoods.”

Johnson, who had been briefed by detectives about the suicides, shared a few details from the investigations. The last several cases had “domestic and family triggers,” which will be a focus as the department hires more clinicians, Guglielmi said.

At the same time, Alexa James, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness in Chicago, made an impassioned public plea to officers.

“This is to the brave souls who keep us safe,” she said in a commentary published in the Tribune on March 11. “Stay. We need you. If you are feeling alone and unsure, if you can’t feel the ground beneath your feet or see any light in the darkness, know that you are loved and important in the world.”

This wasn’t the first time the department has been put on notice about the well-being of its officers.

In January 2017, the U.S. Justice Department concluded the Chicago police force did not have an “overarching officer wellness plan that includes robust counseling programs, comprehensive training, functioning equipment and other tools to ensure officers are successful and healthy.”

At the time, the department had just three clinicians in its employee assistance program, or EAP, for more than 13,000 officers. By comparison, the report noted, the Dallas Police Department staffed three counselors for a police force of about 3,400. The Miami-Dade Police Department staffed six for a force of 2,900 officers and 1,700 civilians.

“EAP counselors are overextended,” the report found. “At the end of 2015, EAP’s three clinicians had provided 7,498 mental health consultations/appointments.”

Those findings were incorporated in a federal consent decree that sets a 2020 deadline for reforms that include staffing at least 10 clinicians — and ensuring that officers have access to nonemergency counseling within two weeks of a request and emergency counseling within 24 hours.

West said Tuesday that the department has already initiated some reforms. It has trained 300 officers for teams of peer support officers for each of the city’s 22 police districts. The department has launched a video series aimed at dispelling myths about seeking help, including the idea that officers automatically lose their job if they admit they are struggling. Surviving family members and some top brass are featured in the videos, talking about getting help over the years.

“We have to take a hard look at ourselves and see what we can do differently and better,” West said.

The department has been slow to hire the clinicians required by the judge’s order, with only two hires since the DOJ report was released. Meanwhile, department records show requests for help from officers are sharply rising.

The Los Angeles Police Department — a smaller department in a city that sees less violence — has 16 clinicians in the behavioral sciences services who are assigned to each of the department’s divisions to promote earlier intervention and reduce the stigma around asking for help.

Guglielmi said the department is working to expand its staff of clinicians from five to 11, and is currently conducting interviews.

Steiner said the department should be looking for professionals with experience treating trauma and PTSD, noting that family problems often stem from work stress and trauma. Misdiagnosing the root of the problems can be harmful, she said.

“If an officer goes and tries to get help and feels no improvement, they’re going to think something’s wrong with them and that nothing’s working,” Steiner said. “They’re going to feel hopeless, and hopeless equals suicide.”

When treating officers, Steiner said she uses several evidence-based methods for treating trauma, including cognitive behavior therapy and exposure therapy.

For example, she uses a replica gun to help officers suffering trauma related to use of a weapon. The point is to get used to holding it and taking it apart — a form of exposure therapy.

For an officer who was attacked in a jail cell, Steiner conducted the session in the relatively enclosed space of a hallway.

She is also certified to use a technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, originally developed for veterans, that helps patients reprocess trauma.

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As intense as their job is under normal circumstances, Chicago officers have been placed under even more stress over the last four years: a sharp rise in street violence, a spike is distrust in neighborhoods, and ongoing scandals within their department. The 2017 Justice report that led to the consent decree criticized officers for widespread civil rights violations and described their department as woefully negligent in terms of support and training.

Yet many officers struggle to admit that any of this gets to them — because they fear losing their jobs, promotions or the confidence of their peers, experts say.

“Underneath it all, they are human with human emotions and the trauma experience they have hurts,” said John Violanti, a researcher at the University of Buffalo.

Early intervention is key, experts say.

“It’s like a bottle,” said Greco, of Blue HELP. “How much liquid can that bottle hold before it will overflow or burst? We have to have a safe way to drain that. … We need to change that culture. The whole idea that most officers don’t know they can seek outpatient treatment. There is nothing wrong with talking to somebody.”

Greco, who is making a presentation at one of two upcoming conferences in the Chicago area on suicide prevention for law enforcement, said there are simple but effective steps that can help, like regular exercise and a healthy diet and unplugging from the cop culture. One of the most important steps might be getting deeply restful sleep.

“First and foremost, we talk about getting good sleep,” Greco said. “Sleep is restorative for anything. If you want to exacerbate any situation, deprive (someone) of sleep.”

Departments should consider flexible job assignments or adding exercise to work schedules as a way to release stress. Mental health should be regularly addressed at roll calls, and departments generally have to reduce the stigma — in part by acknowledging the deaths.

“People don’t come to the funeral,” said Greco, whose organization raises money to send families care packages in the wake of a death. “There is no pomp and circumstance. There is nothing that celebrates a person’s life. The family gets hit twice.”

Steiner, who runs the Lombard counseling center, said departments need to expand what they consider to be a traumatic incident, and possibly have a clinician, rather than a sergeant, make that determination. She said the department generally only considers police-involved shootings to be critical incidents.

Steiner recalled watching as a suspect fleeing in a car ran down a family of six with a baby carriage crossing a street. She opened the baby carriage not knowing what she would find. The baby had a broken leg. A 4-year-old was lying nearby bleeding from the ears and nose. He was dead.

That wasn’t considered a critical incident, Steiner said. “I took the little boy’s dead body to the hospital,” she said. “After that, I had to go to a traffic complaint.”

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©2019 Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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