CITY HALL — The city and Police Department must do more to help Chicago police officers suffering from trauma suffered on the job after the Department of Justice investigation found that officers here commit suicide 60 percent more often than those in other departments, aldermen agreed Monday.
Barbara West, the chief of the department's Bureau of Organizational Development, said officials are considering requiring officers to seek assistance from counselors after being involved in a "significant event" such as a shooting.
However, West acknowledged that the Department of Justice investigation found that the department's employee assistance program was "understaffed and under-resourced" with just three clinicians to serve the Department’s roughly 13,500 sworn and unsworn personnel.
By comparison, the Los Angeles Police Department, which is smaller than Chicago's force, has 11 clinicians, according Ald. Ed Burke (14th), the chairman of the council's Finance Committee.
Those deficiencies will be addressed as the department implements other reforms also recommended by the Department of Justice, West told a joint hearing of the City Council's Finance and Public Safety committees.
The federal investigation found that "officer suicide and suicide threats are a significant problem in CPD."
"For the Department, one life lost to suicide is too may," West told aldermen. "Supt. Johnson is committed to ensuring that officer wellness is a central priority for the department moving forward."
West said making the employee assistance program mandatory would help "combat what has traditionally been cultural stigma around seeking mental health assistance within CPD."
Officers are now "debriefed" after an incident, but the decision to seek assistance is left to them.
Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st), who worked as a firefighter and a police officer for 15 years before being elected in 2015 to the City Council, said more needed to be done to help first responders cope with what they are forced to deal with on the job, something he said he struggles to talk about.
Napolitano said the memory of a 6-year-old boy beaten to death by his parents stuck with him.
"We were called their to save him, and we couldn't save him," Napolitano said, adding that he was "haunted everyday" by what he saw, especially when he said goodnight to his own three children.
"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about it," Napolitano said.
But instead of seeking help, Napolitano said he decided to "bury it down in my stomach" for fear that other officers would look at him differently and be declared a "psych" case.
"We never get called to go to a birthday party," Napolitano said, adding that it took a toll to encounter people on the worst days of their lives.
Right now, the department does not do enough to help officers, Napolitano said.
Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former police sergeant, said many officers did not seek mental-health treatment for fear they would lose their state-issued Firearms Owner Identification card, which they are required to have to keep their position on the force.
Officers who are admitted for mental health treatment can lose their right to carry a gun, officials said.
However, participating in outpatient treatment — including seeing a therapist — or seeking help from the employee assistance program does not threaten an officer's job, officials said.
"We want to proactively communicate the services that are available to employees and their family members and reassure officers that use of the programs will not jeopardize careers and will remain strictly confidential," West told the aldermen.
On average, three officers assigned to patrol Chicago die from suicide every year, Burke said, citing information provided by the union representing officers.
Federal investigators said the lack of mental-health services for officers contributed to the routine violation of the civil rights of residents.
"Although the pressure CPD officers are under is not an excuse for violating the constitutional rights of the citizens they serve, high levels of unaddressed stress can compromise officer well- being and impact an officer’s demeanor and judgment, which in turn impacts how that officer interacts with the public," according to the report.
Federal investigators spoke with an officer who was wounded in an incident during which he shot and killed an individual. After a mandatory furlough, the officer got his gun back without any consideration of his mental or physical condition, he told investigators.
Although he told department officials that he wanted to speak with a psychologist about his experience, "CPD told him that they had no one to recommend," according to the report.
In addition, many officers also struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, according to the federal investigation.
West said the department was in the "early stages" of developing an early warning system to flag officers who had been the subject of serious complaints, another recommendation made by federal investigators.