CPD officers gather as the body of an Illinois state trooper who was discovered with a gunshot wound to the head in a suicide along I94 south of downtown arrives at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office on October 01, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois
Police officers gather as the body of an Illinois state trooper who was discovered with a gunshot wound to the head along I94 south of downtown arrives at the Cook County Medical Examiner's office on October 01, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Efforts to bolster the Chicago Police Department’s officer wellness program hit a roadblock last year as the department lacked the staffing and the technological support to sufficiently monitor its effectiveness. 

CPD was scrutinized for its officer wellness programs by city watchdogs and risked losing compliance status with several paragraphs under the federal court-approved consent decree — which was extended for three more years last year.

This all came as police officer suicides rose to levels not seen since CPD entered its consent decree in 2019. Seven police officers died due to suicide in 2022 which is more than in 2021 (four) and 2020 (two) combined.

A CPD spokesperson said the department is committed to improving resources available to officers in need. 

“Enhancing officer wellness and support is a top priority for the Chicago Police Department,” a CPD spokesperson said in a statement. “Within the past few years, we have worked to expand the resources available to our officers and their families.”

Those overseeing CPD’s reform efforts have acknowledged the department’s success in providing services for distressed officers, but notes it has been thwarted by an absence of data collection, insufficient training, or failure to file necessary reports.

The next mayor and police superintendent will look to improve on many aspects of the consent decree, but where did CPD fall short last year around officer wellness as suicides more than tripled in two years?  

Where is CPD falling short on officer wellness?

Much of the consent decree is centered around reforming CPD which has a documented history around police misconduct and racial discriminatory policing. 

But there is a significant section dedicated to supporting the mental health of department members who “expose themselves to significant danger, high stress, and a wide spectrum of human tragedy.”

The risk of self harm among CPD officers is also documented in a 2017 U.S. Department of Justice report that found the rate of suicides among officers (22.7 per 100,000 department members) were 60% higher than the national average (18.1 law enforcement suicides per 100,000). 

The independent monitor — who is tasked with measuring the department’s progress and reporting back to the federal judge — released a report in December highlighted that the department stalled in its progress mostly due to a lack of data and an “absence of a technology solutions to inform and evaluate whether their efforts were efficient, timely and effective.” 

“While the City and the CPD have been intentional in the sixth reporting period about implementing training focused on officer wellness, crisis intervention, use of force, and traumatic incident stress management, their inability to analyze their initiatives’ impact on their CPD officers and personnel continues to pose significant barriers,” the report said. 

The monitor cites the lack of available data from the department’s Professional Counseling Division as one area of concern. Without proper assessment, the department can’t determine if their services are readily available to officers, how frequently they are used, the period for client follow up or specific data on clinician caseload. 

CPD also has not implemented the required Officer Suicide Prevenetion plan, according to the monitor’s report.

Overall there are 36 officer wellness and support paragraphs that the city and CPD must be compliant with under the consent decree. The department maintained preliminary compliance with 19 paragraphs, was secondary compliance with 13 paragraphs and wasn’t in compliance with four paragraphs. 

Though the department was at risk of losing preliminary compliance levels in some paragraphs if specific requirements weren’t met in the next reporting period, the monitor said.

Some strides made by CPD scrutinized

The monitor acknowledged some of the efforts the department has implemented to remain compliant, such as the move to hire a Director of Wellness. That position did, however, remain vacant for about 10 months. 

In January, CPD announced that it had finally filled this role which would “be responsible for developing and executing an overall strategy aimed at improving wellness for all of CPD’s members.” 

“We believe it is not only important, but critical, that we continue to strengthen the support systems in place for our officers as they continue to serve the people of Chicago,” a CPD spokesperson said. 

These resources also include having 18 licensed clinicians as the department works to have licensed clinicians in all 22 police districts. Ongoing monthly support groups for divorce, military, significant others, Black women in the department and LGBTQ+ people. 

The department also provides training that covers topics such as wellness and stress management and launched the Peer Support Program — an initiative criticized by the city’s Office of Inspector General in November. 

The Peer Support Program provides social and emotional support to officers by other members of CPD who are trained in supporting others. The idea is that officers are more likely to talk and seek support from those who are fellow department members.

Peer support members are tasked with talking to officers about their problems and providing referrals to the Professional Counseling Division if a higher level of care is needed. 

The OIG said there were significant limitations that prevented the Peer Support Program from “better meeting officer wellness needs.” Those deficiencies were recruitment, staffing, training, documentation and record keeping, and cultural competency. 

CPD is also offering pastoral care for members under different settings such as marriage retreats and created the Quilt for COPS program that distributes quilts to officers with disabilities.

“As part of these efforts, the Department is actively working to establish permanent Employee Assistance Program facilities on the South Side and the North Side,” a CPD spokesperson said. “We are also conducting a wellness needs assessment survey that will help us better understand the needs of our members and how to best serve them.”

Resources for officers are vital in reducing suicides among officers. 

There are organizations across the country that look to reduce mental health stigmas with police officers, provide training and advocate for resources. One of those organizations is the nonprofit First H.E.L.P. 

“More police officers die by suicide than any other cause of line of duty death,” said Joe Willis, chief learning officer for First H.E.L.P said.

This is why the organization is dedicated to raising awareness, Willis said, and the nonprofit will begin training multiple agencies through Illiois to prevent suicides starting in May. Last year, the organization trained more than 1,200 first responders in 23 states including Illinois on mental health and wellness practices. 

Former Chicago police officer Carrie Steiner and now clinical psychologist, said training once a year around officer wellness isn’t enough and police departments need to “bring in wellness into the day to day.” 

“This would mean that the supervisors actively encourage tactical breathing, grounding skills,” Steiner said. “There should also be yearly wellness checks that last at minimum 45 to 55 minutes to get benefits for the officer by a mental health professional.”

Manny comes to Illinois Answers Project after four years at the Chicago Sun-Times where he most recently covered transportation. During his time at the Sun-Times, he covered a broad range of topics, including communities and the U.S. Census Bureau. Manny joined the Sun-Times as a Report for America corps member with a mission to strengthen the paper’s coverage of issues facing the city’s South and West Sides. Manny is a Chicago native who has a background in service and solution journalism - which was showcased during his time at City Bureau, a nonprofit civic media organization. He was part of teams that reported on dwindling community-policing initiatives, public health issues related to building demolitions and how incarcerated people struggle to seek post-conviction relief. Manny also has written for the Chicago Reader, WBEZ Chicago, The Groundtruth Project, and South Side Weekly. He graduated from DePaul University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism.