Chicago Police Describe ‘Total Burnout’ After Canceled Days Off And 12-Hour Shifts

First a pandemic and scrutiny over police brutality. Now, police say long hours are hurting efforts to improve officer mental health.

WBEZ
Police officers stand by during a protest in Lincoln Park on June 3, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
Police officers stand by during a protest in Lincoln Park on June 3, 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Police Describe ‘Total Burnout’ After Canceled Days Off And 12-Hour Shifts

First a pandemic and scrutiny over police brutality. Now, police say long hours are hurting efforts to improve officer mental health.

For the past year, as violent crime has spiked in Chicago, the Police Department has been regularly canceling officers’ days off, mandating 12-hour days and sending police officers to neighborhoods they’ve never policed before.

In interviews with WBEZ, officers say this has sunk officer morale to new lows — and it comes after an extremely difficult year marked by the pandemic, civil unrest and intense scrutiny of police for their treatment of Black residents.

Mandatory overtime isn’t uncommon for CPD officers in the summer, but the frequency has increased this year and last.

“People are so tired … it’s total burnout … working murder after murder, shooting after shooting,” one long-time Chicago Police Department sergeant said. “There’s no reward for some of these young guys coming on to do their job and be professional, because they keep dogging them, and it’s like, you can only do so much before you’re burned out.”

The sergeant, like the nearly 10 Chicago police officers from different parts of the city interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity. They fear getting in trouble for speaking candidly about the Police Department and CPD leadership.

Officers argue that the decision by police leadership to continue throwing overworked officers at Chicago’s gun violence problem is not only ineffective but is also undermining the department’s efforts to improve officer mental health and well-being.

Robert Boik, a top CPD official, defends the mandatory overtime, saying it’s “necessary from a crime prevention standpoint to have as many resources out in the field as necessary. And it’s necessary from an officer safety standpoint” to make sure officers have enough backup in dangerous situations. Boik is CPD’s executive director of constitutional policing and oversees officer wellness.

But Boik said it is a concern, and a “fair criticism” from officers, that the extra hours and days working are undermining the message of wellness.

“I think if we had other options to ensure officer safety and ensure that we have the type of coverage necessary to keep crime at a minimum, obviously, we wouldn’t be doing this,” Boik said. “These are very difficult choices. … I can guarantee you, the superintendent thinks about it constantly.”

Already this year about 400 people have been murdered and more than 2,000 have been shot in Chicago. Murder numbers are on pace with last year’s tally, which was among Chicago’s highest. Over the past weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday night, 56 people were shot and 11 killed, according to police.

In the face of that violence, Supt. David Brown has defended the overtime as necessary.

“We’re hyper-focused on the most dense parts of the city that have the highest violence. … At the same time, we’re balancing officer wellness with this because last summer we went nearly 20 days with extended hours and canceled days off. That is not sustainable,” Brown said at a June press conference.

Those wellness efforts became even more urgent last week, after a young officer took his own life — the third officer to die by suicide this year. It’s unclear what prompted the officer’s suicide. The department has struggled with officers taking their own lives for years.

Nearly every officer interviewed by WBEZ said morale at the department is worse than they’ve ever seen it. When one officer, a 16-year veteran, was asked to rank morale on a scale of 1-10, she said, “Can I use negative numbers, like negative 500? Because that’s my answer.”

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Demonstrators navigate downtown Chicago as they attend a march against police brutality on April 24, 2021. Shafkat Anowar / Associated Press

“It’s not the public … it’s our leadership”

The struggle to boost morale and well-being comes in the aftermath of a massive anti-police protest movement last summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by former police officer Derek Chauvin.

In Chicago, those protests gave way to destruction and violent unrest that required officers to work long days in difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Alexa James, the CEO of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the senior adviser on officer wellness to Brown, said an anti-police sentiment is taking a toll on officers. She doesn’t think there is a police department in the country that would say morale is particularly high right now.

James said she has heard from multiple officers that morale at CPD is “the worst it’s ever been.”

As a social worker, James said, she never feels like she’s being held responsible for the mistakes or the abuses of other social workers. But she said that is how cops on the beat are feeling, like everyone is judging them based on a few bad actors. Some people are also judging cops for being part of a system they consider inherently racist.

“There is something that we have to pay attention to around what it feels like for us to be grouping the police so broadly, and what it feels like for officers who are doing this good work, to have so many people monitoring them,” James said. “And I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be accountability at all. I’m saying ‘let’s think about what it feels like.’ And I think that that conversation is missing a lot from the police reform conversation.”

Despite last year’s protests and some of the vitriol aimed at police, some of the officers who spoke with WBEZ said if anything, this year they’ve had more positive outreach from people in Chicago — offers to buy meals or just shake their hands.

“It’s not the public that’s making it so horrible, it’s our leadership,” the officer with 16 years on the force said.

One South Side officer said he is hearing more ‘thank yous’ but also the people who come in conflict with police are “much more brazen.”

“It’s almost like they’ve been trained by the media, and by the general public and even elected officials to a large part, because police are portrayed so negatively,” the officer said.

He also said the kind words from residents can only go so far.

“It’s good to hear ‘thank you’,” the officer said. “It’s not great to hear ‘thank you’ on the scene of a triple homicide, where the crime scene is two blocks long and the street is shut down for five hours.”

Beyond that, there is no question officers are feeling an increased level of scrutiny. They fear being railroaded if they make a mistake or do the wrong thing in the field. And they say reforms and policy changes have taken away some tools needed to do their jobs effectively.

Multiple officers brought up the department’s new foot pursuit policy, which they said essentially discourages any chases at all. That policy was crafted in response to the March police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo, although officers point out the officer was responding to a call of shots fired, and Adam was carrying a gun during the chase.

“They don’t want you to chase somebody on foot, and they want to punish you if for some reason [they think] you did something wrong,” said another officer with 28 years on the job.

The officer said the message he and other officers feel they’re getting from Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and some aldermen is, “We don’t like you. We want to defund you. We want to give you the worst equipment. But yet still, you got to jump into what we say when we feel like it and you have no choice in the matter.’”

“There is such low morale”

James was hired by CPD in March, after two officers died by suicide in the same week. Her mission is to build “officer wellness” throughout the department, improving CPD’s counseling division but also making sure the entire agency is angled toward building up officer mental health and well-being.

Brown has said that officer wellness is one of the “five pillars” of transforming CPD. But officers say the long hours and canceled days off completely undermine any message of wellness.

“They’re trying to push [counseling], they’re trying to push mental health, mental wellness and, sending out emails on behalf of the superintendent, telling [officers] how much he cares about them,” said one sergeant who has been with CPD for 17 years.

That sergeant, who has two young children, described getting one email from Brown wishing him and all other CPD dads a happy Father’s Day. He said he wanted to tell Brown off because Brown had canceled his scheduled days off that weekend, as he had for many other officers.

“He’s wishing me a happy Father’s Day when he knows very well that he was the reason why all these fathers weren’t able to spend time with their kids,” the sergeant said.

On that Sunday, the sergeant was assigned to do crowd control at the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Humboldt Park. Most frustrating, the sergeant did not think the increased police presence was helpful.

Ultimately, the festivities were marred by the brutal double murder of a couple with young children.

“We were out there, we were closing the streets. And you know what? I think that made things worse,” the sergeant said.

It’s a common complaint from officers, who feel that on their extra days at work they are being deployed without any real plan, sent to guard the bean sculpture downtown for no apparent reason, dispatched to neighborhoods they know nothing about or ordered to do traffic enforcement on foot.

“They don’t give you a rhyme or reason or think twice about putting you on mandatory 12-hour days, canceling days off. Last year, it made sense because there was a need. It was an emergency situation,” the officer said.

Boik said there is a rationale behind officer deployment in every instance, but maybe it’s not being properly relayed to officers. If they “feel like we are not communicating enough, then we’re not communicating enough,” he said.

That “probably means there’s more that we can do,” Boik added. “And, you know, we certainly need to double our efforts.”

James said in her time working within CPD she’s gained an appreciation for the “tremendous” resilience from officers.

“And this real commitment to get up and keep going,” she added. “Where I think under the circumstances, you would see a lot of people in any occupation just be done.”

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Alexa James is CEO of the Chicago chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the senior adviser to the Chicago Police Department superintendent on officer wellness. Courtesy of NAMI / WBEZ

James said she’s spent this year assessing the department’s wellness level and developing a strategic plan to make it better. That includes adding more counselors to a unit that currently has 11 clinicians to serve about 30,000 people when officers’ families and retired officers are included. She is also seeking to base mental health professionals in police districts to make them easier to access.

But James said building up the counseling division alone will not be enough.

“One of the biggest challenges is that mental health support within the department is not an equalizer,” she said. “It may mitigate some stress. But there is such low morale currently, that it feels very complicated, and [I feel] a bit powerless … in terms of, what type of grand gesture do we have to do to make sure that people know that there is help available and that there won’t always be this much change?”

She said the department is seeing a big increase in officers seeking mental health help.

“The Police Department reflects the general population too, and so we’re seeing higher rates of substance use and depression and anxiety. But we’re also seeing more engagement in therapeutic services, which is great,” James said. “I think that we have to remember that there are a lot of lives supported and saved, through peer support … and also through the clinical interventions.”

Boik, whose job is to make sure the department is keeping up with reforms mandated in the federal consent decree, said getting officer wellness right is key to improving the relationship between police and residents.

“A well officer, both physically and mentally, really has to be the primary goal, because we’re never going to be able to rebuild and repair relationships if we ourselves are not well,” Boik said.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.