After 3 suicides by Chicago police officers, top cop fends off rising criticism for routinely canceling days off

Four members of the City Council are calling for hearings on mental health challenges facing police.

SHARE After 3 suicides by Chicago police officers, top cop fends off rising criticism for routinely canceling days off
Chicago police Supt. David Brown.

Chicago Police Supt. David Brown

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

After the recent suicides of three Chicago police officers, the city’s top cop on Monday fended off rising criticism of his policy of routinely canceling days off, insisting the controversial practice is tightly controlled and has been common for decades.

But Supt. David Brown was immediately called a liar by the Fraternal Order of Police, and four members of the City Council say they plan to hold hearings on the mental health challenges facing police.

Brown began his weekly news conference by honoring the three police officers who have died from self-inflicted gunshot wounds this month, two of them over the weekend.

“Each department member was loved and cherished by their families and friends,” Brown said. “They were respected and valued by their fellow officers and the people they served, and they selflessly served this city … and fought to make our communities safer.”

The deaths have highlighted the mental health issues facing sworn officers, and have renewed condemnation of the department’s decision to routinely cancel days off, a practice that underscores deep staffing woes.

In an interview with the Sun-Times on Sunday, the department’s former senior adviser on wellness decried the practice as “inhumane.”

“[Officers] really see these horrific, triggering events all the time,” said Alexa James, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, which trains recruits and consults with the department on mental health issues.

“And when you’ve compounded levels of trauma, and with no opportunity to kind of debrief unless you’re forced to, it can become increasingly likely that you develop stress disorders, depression [and] anxiety,” she said.

Asked about James’ comments, Brown said the department reduces time off to ensure “officers are safe on the streets.” He claimed superintendents over the past four decades have made similar staffing decisions.

Officers typically have eight of their 104 regular days off canceled during the historically violent summer months. Another 12 days are nixed throughout the year, Brown said, though he claimed personal and furlough days are never cut.

John Catanzara, the president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, insisted Brown was “lying.”

Catanzara said canceling days off “became a little more commonplace” starting in 2019 and ramped up again when the riots broke out the following summer. Still, he noted, it wasn’t until last year that it “became the norm.” Brown was hired in the spring of 2020.

In highlighting Brown’s disconnect with members of his department, Catanzara said the superintendent didn’t address officers who showed up at the morgue on Sunday to honor Sgt. Andrew Dodba, the latest police official to commit suicide.

“[He] had nothing to say because he has no credibility to the men and women of the police department when it counts,” Catanzara said. “He can say whatever he wants to the media because he can’t get challenged by the police officers, but nobody has any respect for that man who wears a uniform.”

‘Team approach’

Twenty sworn Chicago police officers have died from suicide since 2018, including four this year, according to figures provided by a police spokesman. In 2017, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice found the department’s suicide rate was 60% higher than the national average.

Dr. Robert Sobo, director of the department’s Employee Assistance Program, told reporters Monday that 11 licensed clinicians currently provide round-the-clock services to current and former employees and their families. Three more are slated to start by next month, with plans to eventually add eight others, so each of the city’s 22 police districts has a designated mental health professional.

Roughly 200 sworn officers also voluntarily provide peer support, Sobo said, and six others have been certified as drug and alcohol counselors.

“By being a team, we can hopefully identify, encourage and get our members to understand that talking — or the processing of emotion — is courageous, it’s responsible and it’s a duty of the job,” he said. “Because together we can succeed in taking down the numbers of suicide with a team approach.”

On Wednesday, City Council members Ray Lopez (15th), Matt O’Shea (19th), Silvana Tabares (23rd) and Anthony Napolitano (41st) are holding a news conference with relatives of fallen officers to tout a package of public safety ordinances and call for hearings on mental health challenges facing police.

Ryan Clancy — whose sister, Officer Patricia Swank, died from suicide on July 2 — is among the scheduled speakers. In an interview with NBC Chicago, he questioned how officers can use the department’s mental health resources when their schedules are so demanding.

“With 12-hour days, no days off, there’s no time,” he said.

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