Reforms advised after cop suicides
Mental health experts weigh in on wellness for Chicago officers
The Chicago Police Department must make fundamental changes in the way it cares for the mental health of its officers, particularly as it faces a recent cluster of suicides, and needs to go beyond what is required by a pending federal court order.
That was one of the conclusions from mental health experts gathered in Chicago recently for a wellness summit. While the court order is a good first step, the department should take deeper steps to come up with a “robust wellness program,” according to the head of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Chicago.
“Systemic changes need to be made to continue creating what seems to be a strategy for a robust wellness program,” said Executive Director Alexa James. “There obviously needs to be more foundational changes as well to accommodate the needs of officers.”
James and others suggested a list of actions during the two-day summit that drew city and department leaders along with more than 50 experts in the mental health field. But it was unclear if and when the department will follow them.
While Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson praised the work of the summit, he did not commit to any specific recommendation. Nor did Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
“We will continue to explore all options to ensure our first responders have access to the wellness support and resources they need and deserve,” her office said in a statement, which noted that the new mayor “has been advocating for a total revamp of the inadequate officer wellness services provided today.”
Sponsors of the summit say they plan to circle back with Chicago police officials in a month or so. The summit comes at a critical time for the issue of mental health among police officers.
At least seven Chicago cops have committed suicide in the last 12 months. And the New York Police Department just experienced four suicides in three weeks, spurring the department to seek “psychological autopsies” to analyze the officers’ actions.
The Chicago Police Department has already met a key requirement in the court order: It recently hired seven more clinicians to offer counseling for the more than 13,000 department employees, upping the total number to 12.
That brings the department in compliance with one of the mandates in the federal order, issued after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report in early 2017 during the fallout from the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Among the findings were that its mental health clinicians were overburdened.
The mental health experts who attended the summit say they hoped to provide a road map for further reform. Among their recommendations:
■ Have the department’s employee assistance program evaluated and accredited by an independent body, such as the American Psychological Association.
■ Train supervisors to speak to officers about wellness and suicide, and evaluate the wellness of officers in their command.
■ Assign clinicians to drop in during all shifts at district stations to build camaraderie and normalize the seeking of help.
■ Require more regular check-ins after police shootings, such as when body camera video is released to the public weeks later.
On the first day of the summit, according to attendees, about 75 officers listened as a neuroscientist explained how trauma impacts the brain. A yoga instructor described meditation and deep-breathing techniques, giving the officers tools to bring down their heart rate. Experts addressed suicide prevention.
“The goal is to eliminate suicide throughout the department,” Johnson told the crowd in opening remarks. “This is a lofty goal but I believe it’s worth striving for.”
On the second day, officers and experts broke out into small groups to come up with specific suggestions and then presented them to Johnson and Lightfoot.
“The department had a really hard year last year … and mental health is a huge priority in the department,” said Zoe Russek, a research manager at University of Chicago Crime Lab, which organized the summit to review best practices around the country.
When Sandy Jo MacArthur was an assistant chief at the Los Angeles Police Department, she and others worked with the police union to add more wellness checks following a police shooting.
Previously, when an officer was involved in a shooting, he or she had to see a psychologist within 72 hours. Most of the time, the psychologist would approve the officer’s return to work, MacArthur said.
But the stress would often hit the officers well after the shooting.
So the department required wellness checks several times in the year following a shooting. In particular, MacArthur said the department requires a wellness check around the time body camera footage of the shooting is released to the public, and again when authorities make a determination about whether the shooting was justified.
“(Officers) who have gone through the process say it’s good timing,” MacArthur said.
That was among recommendations suggested by MacArthur, who is retired, and other LAPD officials who attended and spoke at the conference about the department’s work to revamp its wellness programs.
MacArthur said experts also recommended that the Chicago department’s clinicians be assigned to districts with the goal of regularly dropping in to meet officers and build a rapport.
“Having someone pop in once a week normalizes it,” MacArthur said. “There’s none of the weirdness about it.”
Such changes are crucial to implement now that the department has added more clinicians, the experts said.
James, who spoke at the summit about suicide prevention, said the department also should make sure its insurance plan has adequate mental health coverage for people who want to seek help outside of the department, and should train supervisors to have conversations with officers about suicide and assess the wellness of their subordinates.
One recommendation of “particular interest” was having the department’s mental health program evaluated by an independent body, according to Howard Ludwig, a spokesman with the Chicago Police Department. The idea would be for an organization like the American Psychological Association to come in and give the department an idea of whereit is doing well and what areas need to improve, MacArthur said.
In the meantime, MacArthur is working with the University of Chicago Crime Lab to pull together all the recommendations and create a “road map” that will help the department figure out how to implement the recommendations. They plan to present it to Chicago police officials in four to six weeks, MacArthur said. “The thought process is, how do we create a resilient organization?”
Police attend a suicide presentation by Dr. Carrie Steiner, a licensed clinical/police psychologist in McCook, in March.