It is not easy being a police officer.
It is especially not easy in Chicago right now, where violent crime has soared, community trust in the police is weak, and officers tell us they feel like they are working in war zones.
Soldiers struggle with post-traumatic stress. And so do cops.
The depth of that truth was revealed earlier this year in a single statistic included in a Department of Justice analysis of the Chicago Police Department: The rate of suicide among Chicago cops is 60 percent higher than among officers at other departments across the country. An average of three Chicago officers take their own lives each year.
Historically, the Justice Department report concluded, CPD has done a poor job of handling problems of stress and mental health among officers, even as an overly macho culture within the department discourages officers from seeking the limited help made available to them.
But on Tuesday of last week, City Hall announced that this had to change — and would. Good news, if it happens. The leadership of the Chicago Police announced general plans — details to come later — to bolster support for officers struggling with issues of mental health. The effort is overdue; and it must extend, as promised, beyond the hiring of a few more counselors.
Police officers deserve to know, from their first day of training onward, that the department has their backs, and not just when bullets are flying. They must know that they can admit to being human, stressed out and in need of help, without losing the respect and confidence of their fellow officers and the bosses — and, most importantly, without fear of losing their badges.
A lot of tough cops, uncomfortable with the touchy-feely language of social workers, might roll their eyes when they read this, but CPD could benefit from a more unabashed culture of caring.
Chicago has a lot of catching up to do. CPD employs only half as many counselors as the considerably smaller Miami-Dade Police Department, and only a third as many as the Los Angeles Police Department. CPD has only three trained counselors serving 13,500 employees — and their families. In general, CPD is woefully understaffed compared to other big-city departments.
“The problem really is there are so few of us and so much to be done,” one of the Chicago counselors told a Justice Department investigator, and so they do nothing but “triage.”
As a result, sources told Sun-Times reporter Andy Grimm, officers are slow to seek help. The wait is just too long. And officers also believe, as noted by the Justice Department, that seeking counseling “is a sign of weakness.”
But, as Grimm reported recently, something else also may be holding them back — a fear of being assigned to unwanted desk duty or losing their legal right to carry a gun, which could cost them their job.
The fear is not entirely unwarranted. In Illinois, a person who has been involuntarily committed to an in-patient mental health treatment facility is banned for life from getting a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. But many officers, Grimm was told, believe — wrongly — that they can lose their FOID card just for seeing a therapist, taking psychiatric medication or getting outpatient treatment.
For the sake of officers doing a stressful job, it is incumbent upon CPD to create a safer place for them to talk out issues without fear of repercussions. That means doubling or tripling counseling services. It means drilling police cadets in ways to deal with stress. It means sending the message that seeking help is not a sign of weakness. And it means reassuring officers that their jobs will not be on the line.
Police officers protect us, and we must protect them. A healthy officer — physically, mentally and emotionally — is the best officer.
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