Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday returned to a meeting of the Police Board she once led and said the city’s mental health services for its police officers are “woefully inadequate” and called out the city’s top cop for failing to lead on the issue of officer wellness.
Seven Chicago police officers have died by suicide since last summer, a number Lightfoot called “distressing.”
“We’ll do a better job because I’m determined to make that happen,” Lightfoot said.
As recently reported by WBEZ, officer requests for counseling from department therapists nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018.
This month, the department added six additional counselors, bringing the total number of clinicians in the counseling division to 12, including a director and assistant director.
On Thursday, Lightfoot said that is still not enough mental health professionals to serve the 13,000 sworn officers in the Chicago Police Department.
“And that has consequences not only for [the officer],” Lightfoot said. “But for the citizens because if they are not well, if they’re not getting the support that they need, if they don’t have a safe place to go to get help with the trauma that they’re experiencing on a regular basis it is has a cascading effect on everything that they do.”
Lightfoot recently returned from visiting New York City, and she praised New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill for his public comments following the suicides of three officers in just 10 days.
“Their commissioner issued a statement talking about officer wellness, recommending resources that officers could tap into. I thought that was absolutely the right kind of leadership to exhibit,” Lightfoot said, while also implying that Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has not demonstrated the same kind of leadership. “We’ve had seven [officer suicides] and there’s been very little that’s said, and I’ve said it to the superintendent, we have to do a better job making sure that our officers are getting the support and resources that they need.”
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said Johnson has been outspoken about officer wellness and the bravery of officers who seek help. Johnson recently shared his own experience seeking counseling from a department clinician. Guglielim said the issue of officer mental health is “personal” for Johnson.
“We’ve really tried to change the stigma internally so that if you choose to seek help it doesn’t hurt you,” Guglielmi said.
Lightfoot made her comments following a police board meeting at police headquarters Thursday night. Lightfoot was president of the police board from 2015 to 2018. Her position leading that panel, which decides on punishment for serious police misconduct, gave her a prominent role in the city’s police reform efforts following the release of video showing the police killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Lightfoot sat in the back row watching Thursday’s meeting, in which no major decisions were announced.
She addressed the board and the audience, thanking them for their active participation and promising them that police board members are listening to their concerns.
“I’ve learned a lot from sitting on the other side of the table from people who have come to these meetings pouring out their hearts asking for help,” Lightfoot said. “And I want to tell you that I’ve heard you and that we will make sure that we keep pushing forward on the necessary work to make sure that our police department is respectful to the community and that we continue to do everything possible to bridge the divide.”
Lightfoot wrapped up her remarks after George Blakemore, a man known to most public officials for his frequent comments at public meetings, pointed out that the mayor had gone over the two minutes normally allowed for public comments at police board meetings.
“Mr. Blakemore’s giving me the hook so let me wind up,” Lightfoot said laughing. “I saw you, I’ll play by the same rules.”
Activists and religious leaders said it was meaningful to them that Lightfoot came to the meeting and addressed them.
Bishop Gregg Greer said Lightfoot coming to the meeting shows that she’s “involved and engaged” in police reform.
Activist and politician Will Calloway said Lightfoot’s presence and remarks were “inspiring.”
“I’ve been coming here for the past several years, today was my first time ever seeing the mayor of this great city attending one of these Chicago Police Board meetings with us, and you know sitting out on our side with the community,” Calloway said.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.