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CPD Supt. Johnson goes to Far South Side district to comfort grieving officers

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson is confident there will be no civil unrest following the Jason Van Dyke trial, but the police are prepared for any escalations. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson went to a Far South Side police station on Tuesday to comfort officers reeling from back-to-back tragedies — the suicide of one officer, the collapse and death of another — amid calls for CPD to step up its efforts to provide mental health assistance.

On Sunday, 36-year-old Brandon Krueger shot himself in the parking lot of the Calumet District station, 727 E. 111th, after executing a search warrant along with his unit assigned to the Bureau of Organized Crime.

Less than 36 hours later, Vinita Williams, a 47-year-old officer, passed out while inside the station and could not be revived. She was transferred to Trinity Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Jason Palmer, an editor at Referee Magazine, said he went to Lindblom Math & Science Academy with Williams and had known her for 14 years. The city has “lost an angel and a good protector,” he said.

“She was the type of person you’d want on the police force,” Palmer said. “If you knew her, you’d be shocked she was a police officer because of her temperament. She was a sweetheart.”

Palmer said Williams, who leaves behind a husband and two sons, became an officer in her 30s, which came as a surprise to her friends. Before joining the police department, Williams was a curator at the DuSable Museum. Palmer, as well as many others in Lindblom’s class of ’88, were looking forward to seeing her in two weeks for their 30-year high school reunion.

Chicago Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said there was “nothing nefarious” about the most recent death, which “appears to be some type of natural cause or cardiac issue.”

But that doesn’t make it any easier for Calumet District officers to handle the back-to-back tragedies. Which is why grief counselors have been at the station since Sunday, and why Johnson paid a special visit.

“It appears to be an awful coincidence. But it’s not lost on us that officers in that district are affected by this. They knew both officers. They’re people, too,” Guglielmi said.

Alexa James, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the back-to-back tragedies at the same district underscored the need for CPD to develop a “comprehensive plan and strategy around early intervention and officer wellness.”

“Many companies have response plans when there’s an employee who dies tragically. I am not sure if the [police] department has a comprehensive plan to support surviving officers,” James said.

“Officers have very high rates of exposure to trauma similar to the communities in which they serve. They see terrible things all day long. It is our responsibility if we want officers to react in a way that we see fit that we mitigate their risk of trauma exposure as much as we can. You wear your vest. You carry your weapon. You make sure you go home at the end of the night. We do everything to mitigate physical injury to our law enforcement. We have to do the same for their mental wellness.”

If the mental wellness is not prioritized, James said, “You get an epidemic of suicide. You get officers who are de-invested. You get officers who experience compassion fatigue and burn out. You get officers who are depressed. You get an un-well department.”

Guglielmi said the Chicago Police Department has “done a lot of awareness about officer suicide” over the last three months, in part, by launching a campaign, entitled, “You are not alone.”

CPD has also added “chaplains for every religious denomination” and is prepared to make a “significant investment” in an employee assistance program that the U.S. Justice Department has branded as “under-staffed and under-resourced,” he said.

“There has to be help in a variety of ways. You can’t have a single path. Every officer is different. Some officers will take advantage of counseling. Others will talk to clergy. Some officers don’t want to do any of that. They just want to talk to other officers,” Guglielmi said.

The Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department — released after an investigation triggered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald — 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 had 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 be seen as rats, so they don’t report it, the DOJ concluded.

During a City Council hearing last year, 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 then that the program, needed “additional trained specialists on hand to engage, assess and help officers cope with chronic depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and everyday situations.”

Contributing: Rachel Hinton