After cluster of officer suicides, former CPD mental health counselor says city isn’t doing enough to help overworked cops

As Chicago police officials grapple with a spate of officer suicides, the department’s former welfare adviser slammed the practice of canceling vacation days as “inhumane” and called for a comprehensive plan to address psychological issues within the ranks.

The latest tragedy unfolded on Saturday, when a sergeant suffered an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He died on Sunday, police said in a statement.

“We ask that the city wrap its arms around this sergeant’s loved ones as they mourn his loss,” the statement said. “Please also take a moment to pray for the men and women of the KPD who are grieving alongside the family of this sergeant.

Two other officers had already died in similar circumstances this month. Durand Lee, 42, was pronounced dead Friday. Patricia Swank, 29, died June 2.

Alexa James, the chief executive of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Chicago, was originally tapped in September 2020 as the department’s senior adviser on wellness — shortly after Deputy Chief Dion Boyd, 57, shot himself to death in his office.

Alexa James, chief executive of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Chicago, said the city is not doing enough to address mental health concerns within the Police Department.

She said she resigned about a year later, fearing she was adding “very little value,” though her organization still trains officers at the police academy and consults with the department “on all things mental health.” She said cops have recently complained of “feeling like a number” after their vacation days were canceled, a controversial practice that has been used to address the department’s deep staffing issues.

“I think what’s happening is inhumane,” she said. “And of course I’m not hooking up [regular day off] cancellations for increased suicides, but we know this is the pattern.”

Suicides typically increase between May and October, “and that’s what we see reflected in the Police Department,” according to James, who said some officers are already at a high risk of suicide because they are middle-aged men. with access to weapons. face significant trauma and stress.

She pushed for a new strategy that would allow officers to “have a break”, noting that overwork is “very impactful” on their mental health. Sleep loss affects decision-making, she said, and limiting personal time can increase stress levels and reduce opportunities to address the trauma officers experience on the job.

“They really see these horrific, inciting events all the time as they’re compounded,” she said. “And when you have complicated levels of trauma and no opportunity for some kind of rapport unless you’re forced to, it can become increasingly likely that you’ll develop stress disorders, depression [and] anxiety.”

While James praised a plan to hire more counselors for officers, she insisted it would not “relieve decades of disinvestment around health”. She called for a “comprehensive strategy” that goes hand in hand with the department of public safety’s plans and makes treatment accessible, accounting for time off between shifts and ensuring officers have the skills to engage their loved ones on the job. Theirs.

Spokesmen for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Police Advocates. David Brown did not immediately respond to questions from the Chicago Sun-Times, though both have backed off when questioned about the canceled vacation days.

“Look at the incredible amount of vacation days, personal days and other things that officers have under contract,” Lightfoot said last month. “That notion – I think the infamous head of the FOP said as part of his campaign, ‘They’re being worked like mules’ – is simply not correct.”

In a statement posted on Twitter Sunday, the Police Department said its members “are in the midst of the most difficult and challenging time to be a police officer in this country. Employee well-being and overall mental health is our top priority.”

Lightfoot was added: “Please know that we hear you and are working tirelessly to ease the mental and physical burden on our police officers.” Both she and the Police Department advised officers to seek the same clinical services that James said are inadequate.

After Officer Lee’s death, Catanzara said the union “can always do a better job of looking after our brothers and sisters and trying to pay attention to potential moments of crisis.”

To make it more comfortable, he said, the union renovated a floor of the FOP lodge specifically for counseling services. However, he claimed the city “did nothing to follow up” and the department’s counseling section has refused to use the offices.

“It’s a joke,” he said, adding that the union is now planning to bring in counsel to conduct the hearings.

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