Ill. Suicide Prevention Act allows cops in need to connect with other officers

Designated officers could become trained peer counselors who colleagues can approach with the knowledge that certain elements of what they discuss will remain confidential


By Matt Buedel
Journal Star

PEORIA, Ill. — Trauma causes lasting effects on children and adults, but one broad category of public employees who witness trauma on a regular basis faces a daunting dilemma over discussing those effects.

Legislation currently proposed in Illinois aims to make that discussion easier, with a goal of keeping those workers healthy and improving their interactions with the public.

Police officers witness the worst of humanity, but an admission of anxiety or depression could sideline them, said Peoria police Detective Shawn Curry, who helped craft the First Responders Suicide Prevention Act based on similar legislation in Oregon.

"Officers know if they talk about it now, they will be taken off regular duty because they could be perceived as a potential liability," Curry said. "So they don't say anything about the stress, the anxiety, the depression."

That silence could be one of the contributors to an elevated suicide rate among officers. The average of 125 to 150 officer suicides per year is triple the number of police killed during felony acts and is higher than the national average, Curry said.

Two studies conducted in 2012 found a staggering 48 percent of officers met at least the first criteria for a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and 30 percent of officers reported having intrusive thoughts or nightmares.

So far this year, four officers in the state's largest police force, the Chicago Police Department, have committed suicide. Two officers shot themselves in the same parking lot of the station where they worked.

"The departments are getting smaller, these guys are expected to do more with less, and right or wrong, they get criticized from every side," Curry said. "But this is something that's preventable if it's addressed."

The legislation gives officers a confidential avenue to discuss problems, with someone who they know will understand — a fellow officer.

The act creates training for officers to recognize symptoms in their colleagues and intervene before the situation deteriorates. And designated officers could become trained peer counselors who colleagues can approach with the knowledge that certain elements of what they discuss will remain confidential.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, who has spearheaded other legislative police reform measures, said she supports the legislation's overall intent and limited confidentiality clause.

"There's no confidentiality agreement because officers are mandated reporters — if someone reports illegal behavior, confidentiality goes out the window," Gordon-Booth said. "It's not protecting secrets of officers committing crimes. ... that's really, really important to understand, this can't be a means of protecting bad officers."

With the act in committee and unlikely to be passed during the upcoming veto session, Gordon-Booth said the bill could be reintroduced once the new administration takes over next year.

Though she sees the need among officers, Gordon-Booth views the intended impact of the legislation as a larger issue that needs to be addressed.

"It's about the officer, but the larger focus of this bill is public safety," Gordon-Booth said. "If they're not getting help, that trauma is going to come out, and it's going to come out on other people."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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