The American criminal justice system consists of 2.2 million people behind bars, plus tens of millions of family members, corrections and police officers, parolees, victims of crime, judges, prosecutors and defenders.
WBEZ is partnering with the Marshall Project to tell some of their stories. It’s part of The Marshall Project’s series “We Are Witnesses” exploring the nature of crime, punishment and forgiveness through portraits of Chicagoans who have been touched by the criminal justice system.
Carrie Steiner told her story to The Marshall Project as part of their series “We Are Witnesses.” Portions of her interview are transcribed below. They have been condensed and edited for clarity.
My first day as a Chicago police officer on the street, I was sent to the 18th District and when I talked to the person I was going to be working with, who is called the Field Training Officer — the FTO — he said that we were going to go to a wake tonight. And I said, ‘OK,’ and I thought that was kind of strange, and I was like, ‘Well, who is the wake for?’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s for an officer in the 18th District that had killed themselves.’
Then as I worked there the first year, we had two other officers kill themselves as well in that same district. So very quickly on the department, I got used to officers killing themselves, and I kind of thought that that was, in some ways, normal. That eventually probably some officers would kill themselves.
One of the significant events for me is that I came to roll call [one day], and I was kind of waiting for one of the guys that I was a partner with and he wasn’t coming in and I thought that was strange. And then our lieutenant went to the roll call, and he said that my partner had died the night before. My partner died of positional asphyxiation underneath a steering wheel, and I don’t know how many people die underneath their steering wheels, but I also knew that my partner drank a lot. And I end up finding out that he drank so much that he passed out and that’s where he ended up being.
And so to just lose him and just be told in roll call without anybody, like, taking me aside and saying, ‘Hey Carrie, are you going to be OK?’ or maybe even somebody calling me at home, I knew then that something’s wrong with how we deal with trauma in the Chicago Police Department.
It was so dangerous sometimes in the projects because of the shootings that we would go four deep, which means four of us in the car. And so you don’t want an officer really emotional [in that situation] and also you learn as an officer to not be emotional and to keep it in, and I remember in that roll call room — how did I keep it in? Well, I kept it in because I’d already gotten two calls where people were shot or I saw a baby sexually assaulted, and so I already learned how to just gulp it down, and keep it down, and don’t share it and don’t feel it. Numb yourself out, put it in a little box, and put it over here and forget about it.
I decided I was going to go back to school to become a psychologist because the [Police] Department would pay for part of your schooling. But as I went through my schooling, I started to see more and more traumas happen and more officers doing things that weren’t normal and that weren’t right. And I even saw that in myself, and I didn’t want to be ruined. And because I did see three people kill themselves in the district that I worked in, that reminded me that this could get bad to the point where people do take their lives.
For me, when I was a police officer I didn’t feel like anybody would understand what I would go through. And so I was very hesitant to get treatment for myself because I didn’t think that they would understand. I thought that they would try to take my gun and I didn’t want that to happen, so I didn’t want to get treatment. And I know that’s how a lot of officers feel. And I just decided that I thought that I could help officers better [by] not being a police [officer], but being somebody that they could go to and speak to as a psychologist. So I quit [the force] at 13 years, but I’m really happy that I’m a clinical psychologist and I love what I do ‘cause I help officers and first responders. And they’ve told me that I make a difference.
You can see more of the “We Are Witnesses: Chicago” videos at https://www.themarshallproject.org/witnesses. This story was produced for broadcast by WBEZ’s Alyssa Edes. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.