Serving the High Plains

Steps can be taken to lessen officer suicides

Chicago police Officer Paul Escamilla liked corny jokes. He had three children, coached his son’s little league team and played golf. A former supervisor called him “the guy that everybody could work with.” He earned more than 120 awards in 17 years of service.

Last week, Escamilla died by suicide in a Northwest Side forest preserve. He was 40 years old. His was the fourth suicide by a Chicago police officer this year, and at least the eighth since July 2018.

Too many CPD officers are taking their own lives. Each is tragic and there is no acceptable number of self-inflicted deaths. Nor are there easy explanations for why an officer such as Escamilla would commit suicide.

But Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Mayor Lori Lightfoot recognize policing is stressful, dangerous work. They know the department has a responsibility to support CPD members when they suffer emotionally. Police officers have a higher risk of suicide than other professions.

The question the city must continue to ask is whether it’s doing enough to encourage mental health care and put in place routine good habits to help officers process stress. Brains need maintenance, just as bodies do. A healthy police force benefits the entire city.

A big part of the department’s challenge is determining the extent to which the culture of policing and policies, even in subtle ways, discourages officers from seeking self-care. Officers experience violence and witness other disturbing scenes in their work, yet they may deny themselves the opportunity to manage their emotions due to a mistaken belief it would suggest weakness. Johnson has spoken up about his own past need for help, and the department has made some improvements in assuring officers this is normal and necessary. Yet officers continue to die. They are subjected to enormous stress. They have easy access to guns.

“From the moment they put on their uniform, they answer a call that at any second may put their lives in danger or inflict trauma,” Lightfoot said in a statement after Escamilla’s death. “That is why we, as a city, have an obligation to constantly strengthen the support network they have, and strive to end any negative perception of reaching out for help.”

The department has a dozen counselors to serve more than 13,000 members. That number suggests that contact with a counselor will be fairly rare. Officers must be made aware of alternatives, including ways to seek help confidentially. At a mental health summit in Chicago this summer that drew Police Department leaders, experts suggested steps for the department to take. Some have proven effective in other cities, and all sound sensible:

• Train supervisors to speak to officers about wellness and suicide, and to evaluate the wellness of officers in their command.

• Assign clinicians to drop in during all shifts at district stations to build camaraderie and normalize seeking help.

• Require more check-ins after police shootings — not just immediately afterward, but also at particularly fraught times later, such as when body camera video is released to the public and when a ruling is issued on whether the shooting was justified.

Anyone considering suicide should know that mental health disorders can be treated and that the National Suicide Prevention hotline is always available at (800) 273-8255.

— Chicago Tribune