Chicago PD announces new mental health adviser after recent suicides

The move comes after two officers died by suicide within five days, and months after a commander took his own life


By Annie Sweeney
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — With the Chicago Police Department still reeling from a pair of suicides in its ranks last week, police leaders on Wednesday announced plans to bring in a new senior adviser to coordinate better officer access to mental health and supportive services.

The announcement came after two officers died by suicide within a span of five days, losses that came just months after a high-ranking commander also took his own life.

Alexa James, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, will be the Chicago Police Department's new senior adviser to address increased concerns over the mental health of officers.
Alexa James, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, will be the Chicago Police Department's new senior adviser to address increased concerns over the mental health of officers. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

“It has been one of the most tragic weeks we’ve had,” Superintendent David Brown said in a telephone interview Wednesday as the new position was announced.

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“This is the third officer suicide since I have been superintendent. It has been a challenging 11, 12 months for the department, for its members, for the officers and their families. And we are managing things as best we can.”

The task of improving care around the sensitive issues will fall to Alexa James, chief executive officer of NAMI Chicago, a community-based mental health organization. James has already done mental health training at the department, including for its crisis intervention program, which certifies officers to respond to mental health emergencies.

The senior adviser of wellness position she now takes on has been in the works for months, well ahead of the recent tragedies, officials said.

But the events of last week served to reemphasize a need. Brown said he wanted an outside perspective on officer wellness to better understand “what we can do better.”

James will continue to serve in her role at NAMI, with initial financial support for the consulting work she and NAMI do for CPD funded by the Chicago Police Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that funds programs CPD can’t afford, largely dealing with training, equipment and wellness.

James said Chicago is not unlike other departments trying to improve mental health services for officers, and said she’d be evaluating how officers access care.

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“For me it’s about coming in, seeing where there are holes — some are gaping, some are not — and reporting up to the superintendent about where resources need to land,” James said Wednesday.

While police officers have always been close witnesses to difficult and even traumatic events, the past year has exposed them to even more stress as policing continues to face criticism for years of systemic failures that often have gone unaddressed by policymakers. Much of that has fallen on front-line officers, James said.

“It is a real dichotomy to digest and manage every single day and then to have life and home and COVID,” James said, listing other potential stress factors. “We need to do a better job building resilience on the front end, as opposed to managing it when there is tragedy.”

James said one idea she would like to explore is assigning clinicians to all police districts so that officers can establish trust with a regular counselor.

Brown and James said the department will be reaching out to the philanthropic and business communities about supporting such an effort, as well as other officer wellness programs.

The need for officer help is often all too apparent, officials have said. Since 2018, at least 11 Chicago police officers have committed suicide.

Last July, Chicago police Deputy Chief Dion Boyd, 57, apparently shot himself to death in his office in the Homan Square police facility on the West Side.

Last Monday, Town Hall District Officer 21-year veteran James Daly, 47, fatally shot himself in a locker room inside the district’s police station on the North Side.

Four days later, Jeffrey T. Troglia, 38, died after shooting himself inside his home in the city’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side, authorities said. He had about 15 years on the job and was assigned to a gang team.

Brown, in his comments Wednesday, said one challenge specific to policing around mental health is making sure officers know they even need care to begin with.

“The profession itself demands that we risk our lives to protect others, which means self-care is not prominent,” Brown said. “We put others above ourselves as part of the job and we internalize much of what is really traumatic, that no one should have to see or be a part of on a regular basis.”

Concerns about how the department has tried to provide such care are not new.

A 2017 Department of Justice report that examined the department found that the employee assistance program (EAP), which offers mental health services such as counseling and debriefings after traumatic incidents, was understaffed and overwhelmed, with just three clinicians.

Since then, the number of clinicians has increased to 13.

The Chicago Police Foundation in a statement said its initial funding support aims to offer “additional resources and policies to best serve CPD officers.” Officials said it is hoped other sources of funding will be found to keep the partnership going.

“The Chicago Police Foundation is proud to serve those who serve us,” CPF Chairman Richard A. Simon said in the statement. “In reflecting on events that have adversely affected the men and women of CPD, we understand how important it is to invest in the Department’s most valuable asset, our officers.”

(c)2021 the Chicago Tribune

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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