Being a cop, as we so often say, is a hard job.
Start with the call from the battered wife frantically seeking help. Add the corner drug dealers who make life miserable for the good people on a block. Don’t forget the random bullet, shot by a gang member, that shatters a window and kills a child napping on his grandma’s couch.
Officer, can you stop my raging husband?
Officer, can you make the drug dealers go away?
Officer, can you save my grandson?
The chaos, violence and tragedy police officers encounter every day, especially in a city like Chicago that is struggling with a horrific gun violence epidemic, can wear down even the toughest veteran. Plenty of hard-nosed cops just “suck it up,” burying the trauma to keep at their jobs. But buried trauma is like a dormant volcano: Sooner or later, it’s bound to blow.
No wonder, then, that police officers face a high risk of suicide. They are, according to a 2018 study, far more likely to take their own lives than to die or be killed in the line of duty. The Chicago police face an even higher risk, as we first noted last year. The suicide rate among Chicago cops is 60 percent higher than in other police departments across the country, according to the Department of Justice.
The urgency of the problem was driven home again in recent weeks by the suicides of two on-duty Chicago police officers. According to the Fraternal Order of Police, an average of three officers a year take their own lives.
All officers face an enormous risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome first diagnosed in war zones. Not that anybody should be surprised. To be a cop is to be a kind of soldier, facing physical dangers regularly and witnessing the worst side of humanity.
There is, as well, a ripple effect into the larger society; Officers with PTSD are more likely to use excessive force or be involved in instances of brutality.
We ask the police to “serve and protect” us. We demand that they make split-second decisions to stop crime in real-time, often with lives — including their own — on the line. We expect them to be the “first-responders” when a mental health crisis flares up in a family or neighborhood.
As the police protect us, we must protect them. We must provide the best possible mental health services and, within CPD, send the steady message — an unblinking green light — that officers who seek help will in no way hurt their careers. That’s a real fear among officers, that to seek help is to look weak, and to look weak is to never be promoted.
Father Daniel Brandt, director of the Chicago Police Chaplain’s Ministry, spends hours on the overnight shift every week, visiting officers “in the field” at crime scenes, accidents and fires.
“I’m amazed at how often, when we’re out at 2 or 3 in the morning at some scene, an officer says to me, ‘I’ve been meaning to call you. Can I come see you?’ ” Brandt told us. “Police are programmed to fix other people’s problems, but hesitant to fix their own.”
In its groundbreaking assessment of the CPD released last year, the Department of Justice stressed that strong mental health services are essential for effective police work. Emotionally healthy cops are the best cops. But, the DOJ found, CPD historically has done a poor job of recognizing and treating officers’ mental health issues.
Now, a legally binding consent decree, to be monitored by a federal court, calls for much more aggressive mental health services. A draft of the decree calls for more counselors and a “comprehensive” suicide prevention initiative.
Since the DOJ report was released last year, CPD has hired more counselors and plans to hire more licensed clinicians, a police spokesman said. And the department is touting a new internal communications campaign focused exclusively on the problem of officer suicide, featuring a video that’s played at roll calls, and posters and print materials at district stations.
The draft consent decree, however, clearly envisions an even more ambitious effort to treat the emotional needs of officers. By September of next year, the draft document stipulates, CPD will complete a “needs assessment” of what else must be done to “minimize the risk of harm from stress, trauma, alcohol and substance abuse, and mental illness.”
Every Chicago police officer deserves nothing less.
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