A court-mandated assessment of the Chicago Police Department’s counseling division found a hard working unit hampered by a “shoestring” budget and a shocking lack of “essential technology.”
“Operational computers, printers, and internet are hard to come by” in the counseling office, reads the report. “Email and shared calendars aren’t used because most employees don’t have working computers.”
The office provides mental health treatment to officers and their families. It also provides immediate crisis counseling to department members who have been involved in a traumatic incident. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that the department “does not have an overarching officer-wellness plan” and that “the resources CPD provides are insufficient to meet department needs.”
The department says they are working to address the issues raised in the new assessment, and experts credited the city with putting more resources into the office this year.
Still, University of Illinois at Chicago Professor of Social Work Amy Watson said “what really jumps out” from the assessment is “how starved for resources” the counseling unit has been.
“Everything we do, we do on a shoestring,” the report quotes one counselor saying about the unit.
For example, the assessment describes a process for scheduling and assigning counselors based on handwritten notes and a basket at the front desk. It means that sometimes an officer who leaves a message seeking help cannot be located later, important follow-ups after traumatic incidents are missed and there’s no way for administrative staff to inform clients when appointments need to be canceled or rescheduled.
“One of the complaints that I've heard from other officers is that they do call several times to get an appointment and no one calls them back,” psychologist and former Chicago police officer Carrie Steiner said. “They don't have a system in place. And … it makes me very worried, because if an officer is in crisis and they don't end up getting a phone call, then what happens?”
The assessment, prepared by the department with assistance from the non-profit Civic Consulting Alliance, also exposes an almost total refusal to keep records of any kind.
Experts said the lack of record keeping is done in part to alleviate officer concerns about confidentiality, but it extends so far that clinicians do not write anything down during their sessions with officers.
“The lack of notes is why officers are comfortable coming to [counseling], because records could be subpoenaed,” the report reads. The result, however, is that “when a clinician/counselor retires, all institutional knowledge of their clients’ backgrounds is lost. If there is a long gap between a client’s visit, memory is the only method for recalling a client’s history.”
Steiner said she knows police are worried about therapy notes being subpoenaed, but she does not believe that’s a realistic fear. And she said the harms of failing to take notes are serious.
“What is the accountability for the clinician, if they're not taking any notes and we don't know what type of service they're giving?” Steiner said. “And so the officers who do go and if they're not having a good outcome, there is no way that we can track or understand what happened.”
In a statement, a spokesman for the Chicago police, Luis Agostini said the department is already addressing many of the technological issues raised in the assessment of the Employee Assistance Program, or EAP.
“CPD has made significant investments in the EAP program, including nearly tripling the total number of clinicians on staff from four to 11, and launching the procurement process to fully outfit all EAP personnel with software and computer equipment,” Agostini said.
The mental health needs assessment was a requirement of the court-enforced police reform plan called a consent decree. WBEZ obtained the assessment through a public records request.
The assessment included an employee survey. About 60% of respondents agreed that the department’s EAP has a “a broad scope of services and programs to meet the needs of CPD members.”
Alexa James, executive director for the Chicago branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, works directly with officers on mental health issues.
She said despite the shortfalls highlighted in the assessment she is encouraged by strides made by the department in recent years. And she’s hopeful that the survey results show that the counseling office’s reputation is changing.
“Whether it's perfectly directed or not … they are really digging into this issue,” James said. “They are prioritizing wellness in a much more comprehensive way and spending money and resources on digging deep into what we should be doing next for the first time since I've been in partnership with the police department.”
Corrections: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of the police spokesman. His name is Luis Agostini. We also misstated Professor Amy Watson’s title. She is a professor of social work. We regret the errors.