Chicago police Officer Cory Chapton says he finished work one day around 2 p.m., got into his car outside the West Side’s Harrison District station and sat in the parking lot for hour after hour “contemplating how do I get rid of this pain?”
He thought about ending his suffering as the afternoon stretched into the evening and then into the following morning. It wasn’t until 5 a.m. that he drove off. Fifteen hours had passed.
“I’m done. I’m tired. I don’t want to deal with this no more,” Chapton recounts in a new video produced by the Chicago Police Department.
“You get to that point that,” says Chapton, pausing for several seconds, “just end it all. Forget it.”
Superintendent Eddie Johnson; his predecessor, John Escalante; and Tina Skahill, formerly one of the department’s highest-ranking black women, joined Chapton in going public with the emotional struggles they encountered before mustering the courage to seek help.
The video, produced as part of a series aimed at encouraging officers to seek mental health support, comes as the department confronts a cluster of seven officer suicides since July.
The spike has brought renewed focus on the department’s mental health counseling efforts, which were criticized in a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report in early 2017 in the fallout over the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald. The investigation found that CPD’s Employee Assistance Program was overwhelmed, with just three counselors trying to provide services to a department with more than 13,000 officers.
After the most recent suicide — that of a 44-year-old detective last month — Johnson met with the head of the department’s counseling program and convened a task force to study the problem. The department is in the process of boosting its staff of clinicians to 10 by next year — a mandate of the recently approved federal consent decree that aims to force a broad overhaul of the Police Department’s polices and practices, another byproduct of the McDonald shooting.
The Justice Department’s report also recommended that the Police Department find ways to reach out to officers to lessen the stigma of seeking mental health care.
That is the chief goal of the video, which begins with its four participants announcing, “I reached out” and ends with the message, “You Are Not Alone,” and the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Over its eight minutes, the video intersperses the accounts of the four on how they sought help from counselors or supervisors after hitting rock bottom for one reason or another.
While Johnson doesn’t reveal the troubles that drew him to seek help one day, he describes how he pulled over to the side of the street while on duty and called the Employee Assistance Program. Escalante details his struggles going through a divorce, while Skahill shares her own suicide attempt many years ago.
Chapton talks about the stresses of the job, particularly dealing with tragedies involving children and the elderly. He also describes the emotional toll of interacting with people who dislike or distrust the police, not the respect he expected on taking the job.
“Take all this negative energy, if you don’t know how to get rid of it, it can be a time bomb, a pressure cooker,” he says.
‘An eye opener’
The idea for the video was born earlier this year out of a different tragedy.
In December, Calumet District Officers Eduardo Marmolejo and Conrad Gary were fatally struck by a train while pursuing a suspect onto the tracks.
The Far South Side district already had been hit by several tragedies that year. Two of its officers took their own lives outside the district station, while a third died after collapsing at work.
To save officers from the grisly job of recovering the remains of Marmolejo and Gary, Superintendent Johnson and other members of the command staff decided to take on the responsibility themselves, police officials revealed to the Tribune.
“That was just a bad scene, and the superintendent and all the command staff went up there recovering the bodies of the officers, so that their own officers would not have to see that,” said Sgt. Cindy Guerra, the department’s director of internal communications.
By early January, Sgt. Shawn Kennedy, who works at EAP and had been at the district station shortly after the tragedy, and the rest of the counseling department met with the command staff to help deal with the trauma from that evening.
The police brass told the gruesome details of recovering the officers’ remains, Kennedy recalled. They also talked about other difficult incidents they had encountered throughout their careers.
“It was an eye-opener,” said Kennedy, describing hearing his bosses talk openly about the impact of that experience.
That was the inspiration, Guerra said, to create a video of high-ranking officers talking about seeking help in their own lives to show the rank and file that counseling doesn’t have to hurt their careers.
READ MORE: Chicago police officer’s February shooting death ruled suicide, the department’s 7th in 8 months »
‘Like a volcano’
Escalante, who served as interim superintendent after Garry McCarthy’s firing weeks after the release of a video of McDonald’s killing roiled the city, spoke openly about his struggles years ago during an acrimonious divorce, a common thread in several of the recent officer suicides.
Escalante acknowledged he had previously shared with only a few people the period when he was a sergeant and dreaded rising out of bed many mornings.
“It was something very personal to me,” Escalante told the Tribune in a telephone interview last week. “I didn’t feel like it was something I needed to share with other people.”
But he felt compelled to talk in the video, recalling a nephew he lost to suicide at 18.
“He seemed like the perfectly normal, happy kid that I had watched grow up the past 18 years,” says Escalante, who had seen his nephew just a day and a half before his death. “I always wonder what happened. What if I took a little more time to talk to him?”
In the hope that he might help someone, Escalante talks in the video about his divorce’s traumatic first year. He recalled moving into his own apartment, away from his small children, while at the same time navigating the knotty legal landscape and trying to hold it together at work so he could properly supervise officers.
“I didn’t actually want to take my own life, but I did not want to live,” he says in the video.
After one particularly overwhelming day, Escalante said he felt his knees go weak and slumped to the floor. Despite fears his seeking help wouldn’t remain confidential, he went to the department’s counselors.
“It dawned on me: How did I even get up that day?” he told the Tribune. “How am I going to get up tomorrow?”
With officers regularly witnessing the “worst of the worst,” Johnson said, the stress of policing can compound everyday struggles such as marital breakups or financial pressures.
“It’s like a volcano,” the superintendent says in the video. “That top is going to come off at some point.”
Johnson said he called the counseling program once at 2 a.m. after he pulled over to the side of the road and decided he needed help.
“They talked to me for the two hours that I needed to unpack it,” he said.
Skahill’s darkest moment came when she was a 29-year-old youth officer and a new mother. After giving birth, she said, she suffered from postpartum depression, swallowed pills and was rushed to the hospital. She decided to seek treatment.
“It’s something you don’t expect after having a child,” Skahill, who rose to chief of the Bureau of Internal Affairs before retiring in 2013, told the Tribune.
When someone is physically ill, “no one blinks an eye,” said Skahill, now a civilian department employee holding down the bureau’s No. 2 post. It should be the same with mental health issues, she said.
After his 15 hours outside the Harrison District station, Chapton turned a corner when he finally decided to tell a supervisor he needed help, he says in the video.
He walked into the office, closed the door and had a heart-to-heart talk with his lieutenant.
“I thank him for that,” Chapton said.