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CPD seeks to remove stigma for officers seeking mental health aid

Ald. Chris Taliaferro, center, at a Chicago City Council meeting last year. File Photo. Brian Jackson/For the Chicago SunTimes

The Chicago Police Department is exploring the possibility of making employee assistance programs “mandatory after significant events” to combat a “cultural stigma” that has prevented officers from seeking the mental health assistance they desperately need.

Barbara West, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Organizational Development, disclosed the possible remedy during a hearing Monday before the City Council’s Finance and Public Safety Committees called to turn up the heat on CPD to do more to prevent officer suicide.

West said the Police Department is in the “early stages” of developing an early intervention program — with a $3 million price tag — to pinpoint problem officers that will ultimately lead to “improved communication and standards for officer wellness support.”

In the meantime, CPD is examining its employee assistance programs to make certain they are “appropriate to assist officers exposed to trauma, those who are involved in shootings, domestic violence and other stressors that have an impact on officer health and wellness,” she said.

“Finally, the department has begun to look for ways to make EAP mandatory after significant events in order to combat, what has traditionally been cultural stigma around seeking mental health assistance within CPD,” West told aldermen.

West Side Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), a former Chicago Police officer, questioned how well the department has “actively promoted” employee assistance programs and explained to officers that participation in those programs won’t jeopardize their ability to do the job.

“In speaking to a lot of officers, they are under the misconception that, should they seek some type of mental counseling services, that they are in jeopardy of losing their F.O.I.D. card, which we all know is a requirement of being a police officer and being able to carry a gun,” Taliaferro said.

West replied, “That’s one of the things the reform effort is moving toward: To make sure that officers know that it’s strictly confidential, that they’re aware of all the programs we have. That they can seek the service and not feel that there will be some type of repercussions toward their careers in the future.”

Taliaferro noted that there is a box that must be checked when an F.O.I.D. is renewed. It asks applicants whether they have sought mental health treatment.

“Are you working with the state to ensure that, when an officer has to check that box, he won’t lose his F.O.I.D. card?” the alderman said.

West replied, “We will make sure we go to the state and indicate to them these are the things we are trying to reform. … We do want to make sure they are given the service without jeopardizing their careers.”

Fraternal Order of Police official Rich Aguilar urged the Police Department to clear up, what he called a “great miscommunication out there.”

“We need to get the word out to officers that going to EAP in and of itself is not going to jeopardize their job. Any officer that is treated in an out-patient capacity has absolutely no fear of losing his F.O.I.D. card. It only becomes an issue when they become an in-patient and there’s a solution for that, too,” Aguilar said.

The U.S. Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department was sharply critical of the department’s efforts to prevent an officer suicide rate that’s 60 percent higher than the national average of 18.1 law enforcement suicides per 100,000 officers.

The report noted that CPD’s Employee Assistance Program is both “under-staffed and under-resourced” with only three full-time counselors to provide mental health services to 13,500 employees and their families.

The Los Angeles Police Department has 11 clinicians for less than 10,000 sworn officers.

With an average annual caseload of 7,500, inundated and outnumbered counselors have little choice but to take a “triage” approach to their work, the DOJ report states.

Meanwhile, many officers who need help are afraid to seek it. They fear it will be viewed as a “sign of weakness,” that they will be “ostrasized” for it or that they might lose their F.O.I.D. card.

Partners who are supposed to alert superiors to an officer who needs help or has a drug or alcohol problem “don’t want to seen as rats,” so they don’t report it.

During Monday’s hearing, Dr. Robert Sobo, director of professional counseling services for the Chicago Police Department, acknowledged that there are three licensed clinicians and two police officers who serve as drug and alcohol counselors.

“We currently don’t have anyone who is a psychiatrist,” he said.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) said the Employee Assistance Program, “if it is to be effective at all, must be expanded with additional trained specialists on hand to engage, assess and help officers cope with chronic depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and everyday situations.”