Despite troubling rise in suicides, CPD falling short on getting help for officers, inspector general finds

“The people in charge really don’t care,” said Carrie Steiner, a former cop turned psychologist. “I think that’s exactly how Chicago police officers feel.”

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Chicago Fire Department personnel take down the American flag outside the Cook County medical examiner’s office after the procession for a high-ranking Chicago Police officer was found dead in an apparent suicide at the Homan Square facility, on July 28, 2020.

Chicago Fire Department personnel take down the American flag outside the Cook County medical examiner’s office after the procession for a high-ranking Chicago Police officer was found dead in an apparent suicide at the Homan Square facility, on July 28, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Carrie Steiner still remembers the day in 2009 when a Chicago police officer called and told her he had a gun in his lap and wanted to kill himself.

A Chicago cop herself who got a doctorate in psychology while working on the force, Steiner said she encouraged the officer to seek help from the department’s counseling staff.

He had just left them, he told her, and didn’t believe they could understand him. Still, the officer decided not to end his life.

The encounter spurred Steiner to leave the department and open a practice staffed by therapists with backgrounds as first responders.

Steiner hears about their long, odd hours of persistent contact with violence. Policy decisions that lead to exhaustion and burnout. The stigma within the department over seeking mental health treatment. The fear of losing their gun and ability to make a living.

And she sees a department that, after a troubling rise in suicides in the last four years, still struggles to provide enough qualified counselors.

“To be honest, I think the people in charge really don’t care,” Steiner said. “I think that’s exactly how Chicago police officers feel.”

Former Chicago Police Officer Carrie Steiner in her uniform before she left the department to start her practice providing counseling to first responders.

Former Chicago Police Officer Carrie Steiner before she left the department to start her practice providing counseling to first responders.

Provided

Her complaints are reflected in a little-publicized report released by the city’s inspector general at the end of last year, weeks before the Chicago Police Department saw another cluster of suicides that brought the total for 2022 to seven. More than a dozen Chicago police officers have died by suicide since 2018.

The inspector general criticized the department for failing to properly train supervisors tasked with identifying officers in need of mental health services.

The city’s wellness strategies rely heavily on supervisors and fellow officers identifying officers who need mental health services. But supervisors interviewed by the inspector general’s office said they “lacked key knowledge” to do their job, and many of them acknowledged needing additional training.

The inspector general concluded the department “does not adequately prepare its supervisors to identify members in need of wellness services, and CPD does not ensure that supervisors remain up to date on their supervisory responsibilities relating to officer wellness.”

In response, the department told the Sun-Times it’s continuing to beef up the ranks of professional counselors. It employs 17 and plans to hire more this year to reach a goal of at least one counselor at each of the city’s 22 police districts. There are about 11,600 sworn officers in the department.

“We have the most comprehensive services in the nation right now,” said Robert Sobo, director of the department’s employee wellness program, who said the department had only three professional counselors when he became director in 2016.

With the recent hires, “we have the most licensed clinicians of any department,” Sobo said. “And more peer members and a more robust peer support program than any other individual department in the nation.”

‘Barrier to seeking help’

A U.S. Justice Department report in 2017 found the suicide rate of Chicago police officers was 60% higher than the national average for members of law enforcement, and it noted that researchers were told “officer suicide and suicide threats are a significant problem in CPD.”

Exact data on suicides by police officers can be difficult to determine due to a lack of reporting.

“Although the exact number of officers who die by suicide each year is not currently known, existing research suggests that officers may be more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty,” states a report by the National Officer Safety Initiatives.

Congress has attempted to address the lack of data with passage of the Law Enforcement Suicide Data Collection Act, which began collecting statistics on officer suicides last year from departments on a voluntary basis.

A 2018 survey by the Fraternal Order of Police asked nearly 8,000 officers about wellness issues and found the stigma over mental health was a significant barrier to seeking treatment. Nearly 17% of the officers reported they had thoughts of suicide.

“A staggering 90% of respondents believe that there is a stigma in law enforcement that creates a barrier to seeking help for emotional or behavioral health issues,” the report states. “The perceived sources of this stigma are varied, but include concerns about putting employment at risk, concerns that the officer will be seen as weak or unfit for duty, and concerns that service providers won’t understand the nature of the job.”

As a Chicago police officer told the Sun-Times: “Guys don’t want to be seen as weak. You don’t want people to think you can’t hack it. There’s a feeling of just man up and deal with it. A lot of these guys, they’re carrying their burden silently.”

Ryan Clancy addresses reporters last year outside the Thompson Center on police officer mental health. Clancy’s sister, officer Patricia Swank, died by suicide.

Ryan Clancy addresses reporters last year outside the Thompson Center on police officer mental health. Clancy’s sister, officer Patricia Swank, died by suicide.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In the national FOP survey, 76% of officers reported a fear that seeking help would put their jobs at risk.

Several current and former officers told the Sun-Times about the fear of losing their FOID card, which would put them on no-pay status, if they seek treatment or even say they are feeling depressed.

“If you need help, we ask you to reach out for help. But if you’re worried you’re going to lose your paycheck for it, I mean, I’m not doing it,” an officer said.

But officers won’t lose their paychecks merely for reaching out for help, according to both Steiner and the department.

A counselor would be mandated to report to the Illinois State Police, which manages FOID permits in the state, if an officer “has an active plan for self-harm” or to harm someone else.

But seeking treatment, or even telling someone you feel suicidal, doesn’t rise to that level, Steiner said.

“If I said, ‘Yesterday I felt like killing myself, but I didn’t do it,’ that does not require a mandated reporting,” Steiner said, adding the department needs to better communicate confidentiality rules, specifically about mandatory reporting laws.

Steiner is critical of many aspects of the department’s employee assistance program. “They need to coordinate officer safety and wellness into their day-to-day,” Steiner said.

Several suburban departments she works with have instituted a yearly counseling session for officers, which she said can be an opportunity for officers to try counseling.

‘They see so much violence’

Steiner said the Chicago Police Department needs to hire many more counselors for the thousands of officers on the force.

“It’s important that they’re seen regularly,” she said. “At many of the districts, I’m hearing [officers say] we only met that person one time and haven’t seen them since. That person needs to be at the station.”

She said it’s especially important for counselors to be regularly “hands on” at the station so they can approach officers after a traumatic incident. “Until [officers] start really talking about it, they’re like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t bother me,’” she said. “You can’t just ask them how they’re doing because they’re always going to say they’re fine.”

In defending the department’s wellness strategies, Sobo said that increased demand by officers and their families for counseling services shows the program is working during “a particularly difficult time to be a police officer.”

“Every year utilization of our services goes up, which means we’re gaining the trust of our department members, and we’re succeeding,” Sobo said. “We’re teaching our membership ... how to recognize when is a good time to come in for counseling and making it a regular practice, just as they practice shooting and other things, to make sure they are as safe as can be on the streets and at home.”

But the inspector general found weaknesses in the department’s peer support program — where officers can volunteer to be contacts and provide support for their colleagues. It concluded the program suffers from a lack of management and training, as well as poor communication and feedback.

The inspector general noted the lowest number of peer support officers are available on overnight shifts, and the number of peer support officers varies by district. The Chicago Police Department also had a lower ratio of peer support officers to members than other, smaller police departments.

Officers who spoke to the Sun-Times said they rarely see counselors, particularly on shifts outside of regular work hours, and they said peer support officers — with whom some cops feel more comfortable speaking — are also limited.

Steiner recently opened a branch of her First Responder Wellness Center in the same West Loop building that houses the local Fraternal Order of Police.

“Especially for Chicago police officers, because they see so much violence, it’s hard sometimes for people to relate to them,” she explained. “And I think it makes it easier for our clinicians to relate because they’ve done the job themselves.”

In another report last year, the inspector general found that department practices have been increasing stress on officers, even as it works to improve mental health services. Last year, it released a report that found nearly 1,200 officers had to work at least 11 straight days earlier in the year.

“If you’re not sleeping, you don’t even have the frame of mind to know you’re ready to burst,” Margaret Dougherty, the wife of Sgt. Ed Dougherty, who died by suicide in March, said at a rally last summer.

“I’ve seen the 27 days in a row,” she said.

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