Brown and Lightfoot discuss the recent string of suicides among Chicago police officers

Two Chicago police officers and a sergeant have died by suicide within a month, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said at a news conference Monday morning, addressing the recent spate of incidents in which city officials 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 the families of our members and those who knew and worked with them. … Each of their losses is a tragedy affecting a family, a department, and the city of Chicago.”

The most recent death was that of an off-duty sergeant who died on Sunday. Patricia Swank, a Chicago police officer for more than six years, died July 2 and a second officer, Durand Lee, 42, died Friday, police said.

On March 12, Sgt. Edward Dougherty, 52, committed suicide. More than a dozen Chicago police officers have killed themselves since 2018.

Brown added that police work is “hard work” and that he would argue that the past two and a half years have been a particularly difficult time for a police officer. The superintendent highlighted the department’s resources for civil servants, including religious counseling services and a staff assistance program.

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

“It’s a really tough job being the police,” Lightfoot said of the recent deaths. “We must not underestimate that.”

The city has budgeted $20 million to expand service for officials and families, and is working with the health department to destigmatize people’s mental health issues, Lightfoot said, although she didn’t address the recurring criticism that the cops in Chicago are overworked. She has previously defended the city against those criticisms, saying police get an “incredible” amount of time off as part of their contract.

“We are obviously all mourning the loss of those three lives,” she said.

In the wake of the suicides, several city councilors representing communities on the Northwest and Southwest sides, including Silvana Tabares, Anthony Napolitano, Matt O’Shea and mayoral candidate Raymond Lopez, are calling for hearings on public welfare and death benefits, among other issues.

The Chicago Police Department’s problem with officer suicides was highlighted in a 2017 US Department of Justice report on the city’s policing practices. At the time, a Chicago police officer told the Justice Department that the CPD’s suicide rate was higher than the national police average.

Robert Sobo, director of the department’s employee assistance program, said at the news conference that the suicide rate in Cook County was “alarmingly high.”

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

Sobo said utilization of the department’s mental health and wellness programs is the highest they’ve ever achieved, “which is an indicator of how difficult things are out there, but confidence in our services.”

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

Brown said there is still a stigma among police officers about receiving mental health services and that some officers believe even talking to someone is a sign of weakness. Sobo added that officers have a mandatory debriefing after every traumatic incident, which helps identify traumatized officers and keep them off-duty until they recover.

When asked about the elimination of officers’ days off, Brown said leadership must make a decision on when more or fewer officers will be on the road to assist other officers during police emergencies during historically violent months of the year. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekend, eight of the regular 104 days off were missed.

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

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