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CPD Suicide Prevention Push Aims To Erase Stigma: ‘You’re Not Weak Seeking Help, You’re Actually Stronger’

Despite Chicago Police suffering six officer suicides since July 2018, including two this year, the problem hasn’t increased.

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Isadora Ruyter-Harcourt/Flickr
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OAK BROOK — Despite more media attention on police suicides, the Chicago Police Department says suicide rates among it ranks have not increased. But the department is still fighting to lower a problem the Department of Justice says is 60 percent higher in Chicago than other departments across the country.

On Thursday, the Chicago Police Department hosted a voluntary, daylong suicide awareness and prevention seminar for officers to combat the issue at the Hyatt Lodge on the old McDonald’s campus in suburban Oak Brook.

About 200 of the 300 attendees were members of the Chicago Police Department from all ranks, according to Chicago Police Deputy Chief Francis Valadez. The remaining 25 percent of attendees were from other police departments. 

Deputy Chief Valadez said despite the department suffering six officer suicides since July 2018, including two this year, the problem hasn’t increased.

“I think more people are hearing about it. The media is more on it, highlighting some of the issues that our officers are dealing with,” Valadez said. “Not that we deal with it any different than the average person. We know that doctors, lawyers, nurses, everybody has the same issues. Because of the fact that we are in the spotlight more often, the media focuses on it and I’m glad they have.”

He also addressed a 2017 study from the U.S. Department of Justice that said the Chicago Police Department’s suicide rate is 60 percent higher than other departments.

“The Justice Department study made it seem like we were unaware of it, but we’ve done at least 10 if not more of these seminars. The department’s been well aware. Getting help for officers is nothing new,” he said.

Valadez said the biggest issue with the suicide problem is disinformation, such as the common-held belief among officers that if they seek mental help they will be stripped of their gun and not allowed to work.

“That has been the fear and I think a lot of that is from not having the full knowledge of it. Obviously, if you are threatening to hurt yourself or someone else, then yeah. But it’s less likely the case than to be the case,” Valadez said.

Thursday’s event began with a presentation by Des Plaines Police Chief William Kushner on the First Responders/Recovery Unit, a mental health program for officers across the state, being created at AMITA Health Holy Family Medical Center Des Plaines and a program called the Beyond Peer Program.

“It ensures you are not in the same place [getting treatment] as someone you arrested,” said Frank Gross, director of operations at the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation.

He said they are hoping for the unit to begin operations in late spring and added, “It’s an outpatient unit. If an officer is admitted to a mental hospital they take their weapon away and they can’t work. That wouldn’t necessarily the case with this.”

The Beyond Peer Program is a volunteer program where officers of all ranks undergo 40 hours of training to be able to assist each other with relating to stressful situations. 

Also at the seminar, Liza Franklin, a former lawyer with Chicago’s Law Department now in a clinical psychology PhD program at Rutgers University, said she studied every intentional misconduct lawsuit that had been filed against a Chicago Police officer in the last 13 years. The experience of reviewing every lawsuit, and litigating hundreds of those lawsuits, enabled her to identify patterns in those cases that point to a need for a substantial increase in attention to officer wellness.

Failing to provide appropriate resources for officer wellness has financial consequences for officers, their families, and the communities that the officers serve, she said.

Chicago Police Officer Alvaro Navarro also spoke about alcoholism and its effects on job performance and Police Cmdr. Tina Skahill drew on her experiences on the same subject while serving in various ranks from patrol officer to chief.

Valadez said while a lot of topics were covered during the seminar, the biggest issue officers still face is the stigma around reaching out for help.

“Fear that they will be labeled, whether it’s incompetent or weak. Labels like that hurt in any profession,” Valadez said. “If you can admit you have a problem and seek help, you’re a lot stronger than the average person.”

The event, which has been held annually for 10 years, was paid for by the Chicago Police Memorial Foundation and Motorola Solutions, according to Memorial Foundation office manager Dawn Dolan.

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