The Chicago Police Department has been training new recruits in the importance of mental wellness, but experts say the department now needs to focus those efforts on supervisors who may carry outdated ideas on mental health treatment.
The renewed push follows the suicide Sunday of 44-year-old Detective Eric Concialdi, at least the sixth Chicago officer to die by suicide since last summer.
Until last year, the Chicago Police Department did not track officer suicides, so it is difficult to know whether the recent suicides represent an increase, but Alexa James said the department “absolutely” has a suicide problem.
“I can’t compare statistically but I know that if we lose one officer a year to suicide, that’s one too many, and I think there’s a multitude of issues that are contributing to this epidemic,” said James, who runs the mental health advocacy organization NAMI Chicago. “As the CEO of a company myself … I would really look and examine what is happening with the wellness of my staff that they continue to see ending their life as the only option.”
James was one of several experts who said that to address the “epidemic,” the department needs to focus on supervisors who interact daily with line officers. James said she believes Superintendent Eddie Johnson takes the issue of suicide seriously, and she said the department is doing a better job of training new recruits on when and how to seek help. But she said that leaves veteran officers, many of whom are in leadership positions, still needing to “unlearn or dispel some myths” about seeking mental health care.
“They’re trying to be protective of their officers, right? Because they may see help-seeking as dangerous or as an avenue to lose your your job,” James said. “I do think there needs to be some expectations setting … that as a middle manager, this is your responsibility, officer wellness is your responsibility. And then, allow them resources and time to execute that because we’re asking sergeants and lieutenants and commanders and captains to do a lot of work.”
Superintendent Johnson acknowledged that the message about mental wellness and suicide prevention may not have made it to all of the supervisors in the department.
“I believe that the vast majority want to do the right things by their officers and ensure that they get the proper help that they need. But I also say that I think some of them don’t because they just don’t know what to do,” Johnson said in February.
James’ group, NAMI Chicago, is working with the Chicago Police Department to create a curriculum for so-called white shirts in the department, a term referring to the dress code for officers with the rank of sergeant and above.
James said they will be “talking to supervisors about identifying signs and symptoms of mental health issues.”
The training for supervisors is supposed to start in the fall.
Miriam Heyman, with the Ruderman Family Foundation, authored a study which concluded that nationally, police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
Heyman said training for frontline supervisors is “absolutely” essential to bringing down the number of suicides in Chicago.
“You know, I can talk about this forever, but I think people, police officers, need to hear it from their superiors. I think a message from their own supervisor is more powerful than anything that you or I could say,” Heyman said.
Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice desk. Follow him @pksmid.