Re­forms ad­vised af­ter cop sui­cides

Men­tal health ex­perts weigh in on well­ness for Chicago of­fi­cers

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGOLAN­D - By Made­line Buckley mabuck­ley@chicago

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.

‘Good tim­ing’

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.

Next steps

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.

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