Chicago Police officers often work in high stress, traumatic and dangerous environments that can jeopardize their mental health.
A draft consent decree released last month would improve and expand officer support systems and treatment options. If approved, the proposal would address mental health, substance abuse and emotional challenges that can impact officer safety and job performance.
Chief Barbara West of the Bureau of Organizational Development and Walter Katz, the mayor’s lead policy adviser on public safety, join the Morning Shift to talk about officer wellness and mental health resources outlined in the consent decree.
“One of the main priorities is definitely removing the stigma so that officers know that of course it’s OK to seek help if they’re facing challenges,” West said Tuesday in an interview with host Jenn White.
On the challenges of the job
Chief Barbara West: We’re human, we’re people first and we bring to the job many things of family stress, taking care of ill relatives, having children with special needs so we bring everything that any other person would bring to the job. But having to deal with the dangers of the street and the traumas… you know that creates another level of anxiety that can happen to a potential officer while they’re working.
On current practices and resources for officers
Walter Katz: Well currently there is the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the consent decree calls for expanding that. There are also clinicians who are on staff with the police department. Currently, there are three full-time clinicians —
the consent decree calls for expanding that to 10 full-time clinicians. Also, last year, the police department published the next steps for reform and one of the major parts of it was talking about early intervention.
There is a clear understanding in policing across the board, nationally, about the need to be able to intervene with officers who are in need of support, who are showing perhaps troubling signs of either personal challenges or challenges on the street interacting with individuals.
On identifying red flags
West: A supervisor is trained to identify those kind of triggers… and we’re getting additional supervisors as part of this consent decree which will be very helpful. We want them to be able to identify a change in an officer that they would (be able to) see because see that person every day. So when an officer is showing or demonstrating some type of reaction to something, a supervisor is able to actually say “hey, I need you to go have an appointment with EAP,” or to grab one of the peer support members who actually work in that unit to say “hey can you speak to them.”
On curbing high rates of suicide in CPD
Katz: Part of it is the early intervention system, it is the peer support, it is the expanding of clinicians. When an officer encounters a traumatic incident such as an officer-involved shooting, they have to connect with a counselor within 7 days and then the consent decree requires a follow-up within six months. If an officer needs immediate help, he has to be able to see a clinician within 24 hours. Those are all (the) pieces… when you put them together, (it’s) a constellation of support.
West: One suicide is just too many. As a department, when an officer (dies of) suicide, we all feel it. We check on each other, we try to say “do you know this officer? Did you see something? Was there something apparent that we missed? How could we have saved (them)?
But the consent decree does go into talking about us launching a suicide prevention campaign, with working with national experts, working with other law enforcement and seeing that they do in their departments that could possibly assist us in creating our suicide prevention program here in CPD.
On de-stigmatizing mental healthcare
Jenn White: To be a CPD officer, you need to have a valid FOID card (a firearm owner ID) but if you get in-patient mental health treatment, you can’t seek a FOID card for five years. So how does that policy work for officers if they do need to seek inpatient mental healthcare?
Katz: That latter scenario is unlikely to occur. We have a number of supports in place so that we can get to officers before they reach that point of crisis so they don’t need inpatient care.
We do understand that there is concern amongst officers and that is the exact stigma that we’ve pushed up against historically in this department to not seek help out of that fear “If I go see a counselor and I tell them what I’m really going through, I’m gonna lose my firearms ID card and I’ll lose my ability to work and support my family.” So it actually creates a cycle of more stress for an officer. We want to increase those supports so that inpatient care does not even become necessary.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.
GUESTS: Chief Barbara West, head of the Bureau of Organizational Development
Walter Katz, deputy chief of staff for public safety
LEARN MORE: Gov. Rauner studying police consent decree and how to support ‘our heroes’ (Chicago Sun-Times 7/31/18)
Consent decree draft proposal (pgs. 100-113)