Police Grapple, Make Changes in Midst of Officer Suicide Crisis

When it comes to suicide, there is often little closure and few answers for loved ones

For one police chief in a small western Illinois town, policing is a family affair. 

“My parents taught us that you have to help people,” David said. “(Policing) is something different to do everyday.” 

David followed in his older brother’s footsteps into law enforcement. 

“He was a great leader. He was my best friend,” David said.

After 30 years of service, David’s brother – a suburban sheriff’s deputy – took his own life last July. David requested NBC 5 Investigates to withhold his brother’s name and department for privacy reasons. 

“The day before, I sent him a text message, ‘Hey, I love you, just checking in. Hope you have a great Thursday.’ He said, ‘having a fantastic day,’” David said. “I have no clue (what triggered this) because he was happy.” 

When it comes to suicide, there is often little closure and few answers for loved ones. But an unprecedented mental health survey may shed some light into suicides within the law enforcement community, which continues to rise. 

Our partners at NBC New York, in partnership with the Fraternal Order of Police, sent a confidential online survey to thousands of police officers to hear directly about the impact of stress from the job and to learn what services are available when they need help. 

Of the nearly 8,000 officers who responded, 68 percent said stress on the job led to unresolved emotional issues, ranging from recurring and unwanted memories to substance abuse to family problems.

For officers in Illinois who responded to the survey, 18 percent said the post-traumatic stress led to thoughts of suicide. That is higher than the national average of 16 percent. 

The survey also revealed 90 percent of officers feel a stigma in get help, citing reasons such as fear of losing their job to being seen as weak or unfit for duty. 

“Officers are seeing so much trauma, and it gets to the point where they think that’s normal,” said former Chicago Police Officer-turned-psychologist Dr. Carrie Steiner. 

Steiner opened the “First Responders Wellness Center” in Lombard, which she says is a first-of-its-kind practice in the country to offer mental health help exclusively to first responders by former or current first responders, after noticing a crisis in the department. 

“I know personally 18 officers that have killed themselves,” Steiner said. 

She said on her first day in 1998, she and her colleagues in the 18th District attended a wake for an officer who died by suicide. 

“There is stigma that if I go for help then will my partners think I can handle this job? Will I be stable enough to handle a call?” Steiner said. “Officers are also trying to protect other people from having to go through it. I didn’t want to see what I just saw, so why would I want my family member or somebody else to hear about what I just saw?” 

Dr. Steiner believes officer suicide should be considered a line of duty death. 

“It’s very rare that an officer commits suicide, and it is not correlated to their work,” Dr. Steiner said. 

Yet with suicides, there are no processions or stately funerals. In fact, experts said benefits to surviving families are often cut off immediately. 

“That’s one of those things moving forward, we have to look at to see if there’s anything we can do,” said Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson. 

Five CPD officers have died by suicide since last July, a problem that Supt. Johnson is trying to reverse. Nationwide, there were 160 officer suicides in 2018, and 9 so far this year, according to the non-profit organization Blue H.E.L.P. 

According to the 2017 Department of Justice report, Chicago Police grossly understaffed department clinicians. Only three therapists served the department’s roughly 13,500 sworn and unsworn personnel, the report said.

“In comparison, the Dallas Police Department also staffs three full-time counselors to provide services for a force that is a quarter of CPD’s size…the Los Angeles Police Department has thirteen counselors available to provide counseling to their roughly 10,000 officers and 3,000 civilian personnel.” 

Johnson said by spring, CPD will staff 11 full-time therapists, who will each be assigned several districts. 

“What we what to do is de-stigmatize reaching out for help, we want to normalize it, so I think if we get to the point that these officers see them all the time, they’ll get comfortable with talking to them,” Johnson said. 

The superintendent is also mandating that all officers who witness a traumatic incident, not just the ones involved, must get evaluated before returning to duty. 

“This is a macho professions, not just in Chicago, but all across the country,” Johnson said. “It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of courage to reach out and get some help.” 

Johnson said calls for mental health help within the department has increased, an encouraging sign that officers are feeling more comfortable reaching out.

State laws also changed last summer that an officer who seeks mental health help won’t lose his firearm ID (FOID) card. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255. The crisis line for first responders is (615) 373-8000. 

The clinicians at the First Responders Wellness Center can be contacted at 630-909-9094.

Blue H.E.L.P., whose missions is to reduce mental health stigma through education and to raise awareness to officer suicides, will be hosting a conference in Chicago on April 11 and 12.

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