Chicago's top cop: Department's mental health top priority in wake of officer suicides

An official said use of the department’s mental health and wellness programs are the highest they have been


Suicide is always preventable. If you are having thoughts of suicide or feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately at 800-273-8255. Counselors are also available to chat at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Remember: You deserve to be supported, and it is never too late to seek help. Speak with someone today.

By Paige Fry and Gregory Pratt
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Two Chicago police officers and one sergeant have died by suicide within a month, Chicago police Superintendent David Brown said at a news conference Monday morning, addressing the most recent spate of incidents in which city officers took their own lives.

“They were sons, daughters, siblings, partners, friends and mentors,” Brown said. “As a department, we ask for the city’s continued support and prayers, especially for our members’ families and those who knew and worked with them. ... Each of their losses is a tragedy that impacts a family, department and the city of Chicago.”

The most recent death was that of an off-duty sergeant who died by suicide Sunday. Patricia Swank, a Chicago police officer for more than six years, died by suicide July 2, and another officer, Durand Lee, 42, died by suicide Friday, according to a statement from police.

Also, on March 12, Sgt. Edward Dougherty, 52, died by suicide. There have been more than a dozen Chicago police officers to take their own lives since 2018.

Brown added that police work “is tough work” and that he would argue the last 2½ years have been an especially difficult time to be a police officer. The superintendent highlighted the department’s resources for officers, including faith-based counseling services and an employee-assistance program.

Asked if the city is doing enough for the mental health of officers, Mayor Lori Lightfoot at a press event said, “First and foremost, I think the three suicides present us with an opportunity to remember that our police officers endure incredible stress and trauma every single day.”

“It’s a really hard job to be the police,” Lightfoot said. “We cannot underestimate that.”

The city has put $20 million into its budget to expand offerings for officers and families and is working with the public health department to destigmatize mental health challenges, Lightfoot said. However, she did not address recurring criticism that Chicago cops are overworked. She has previously defended the city against that criticism, saying police get “incredible” amounts of time off as part of their contract.

“We’re obviously all grieving for the loss of these three lives,” she said.

Following the suicides, several aldermen representing communities on the Northwest and Southwest sides, including Silvana Tabares, Anthony Napolitano and Matt O’Shea, as well as mayoral candidate Raymond Lopez are calling for hearings on officer wellness and death benefits, among other issues.

The Chicago Police Department’s problem with officer suicides was highlighted in a 2017 report by the U.S. Justice Department regarding the city’s policing practices. At that time, one Chicago police official told the Justice Department that CPD’s suicide rate was higher than the national average among police.

Robert Sobo, head of the department’s employee assistance program, said at the news conference that the overall suicide rate in Cook County is at an “alarmingly high number.”

“Our police officers are part of that society. Not only do they experience what most of us do on a daily basis, but on top of that, they experience unspeakable levels of stress, trauma and emotional and physical fatigue,” Sobo said.

Sobo said utilization of the department’s mental health and wellness programs are the highest they have been, “which is an indicator of how difficult things are out there, but (also of) the trust in our services.”

The department has 11 licensed clinicians, including one starting Friday and two more starting Aug. 1. The department’s goal is to have one clinician per district, Sobo said.

Brown said there is still a stigma in policing around receiving mental health services, and that some officers believe that even talking to someone is a sign of weakness. Sobo added that officers do have a mandatory debriefing after any traumatic incident, which helps identify and keep traumatized officers off duty until they have recovered.

When asked about canceling officers’ days off, Brown said leadership has to make a decision when to have more or fewer officers on the street to assist other officers in police emergencies during historically violent months of the year. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend, eight of the regular 104 days off were canceled.

“We never cancel their vacations or their personal days,” Brown said. “It’s so important that officers take their leave, take their vacations.”

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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