May 01–Aldermen on Monday called for the Chicago Police Department to do more to help police officers contemplating suicide in response to the stresses of the job.

Reacting to statistics on suicide rates and mental health services for police officers in a Justice Department investigation of the Police Department, aldermen noted officers working on the city’s violent streets often deal with stress like soldiers in war zones. The Justice Department report said that based on statistics federal investigators received from the Police Department and the Fraternal Order of Police, “CPD’s officer suicide rate is more than 60 percent higher than the national average of 18.1 law enforcement suicides per 100,000.”

But there’s a stigma within the department to seeking help dealing with the issues. Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, said studies have found officers also face “serious legal issues” and pressure from the public and the media, yet there are just three full-time counselors on staff at the Police Department.

“If we’re to succeed in our goal of improving the morale and the efficiency of the department, and the tenor of police-community relations, this mindset needs to change,” Burke said. “The City Council must provide the necessary tools and resources to improve the availability and the quality of mental health care in the department.”

Aldermen introduced a resolution for the City Council to look into what can be done to help officers, but the proposal includes no new funding or specific plans about how to move forward in addressing the issue.

Testifying at the hearing, Chief Barbara West of the Police Department’s Bureau of Organizational Development said the department “is reviewing the support services currently available through the employee assistance program to ensure they are appropriate to assist officers exposed to trauma, those who are involved in shootings, domestic violence and other stressors that have an impact on officer health and wellness.”

And West said the department may seek to make mental health services mandatory for officers following “significant events in order to combat what has been traditionally stigmatized around seeking mental health assistance within the CPD.”

Far Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano, 41st, a former police officer and firefighter, talked about the coping mechanisms officers use to deal with the horrors they see. Police worry they could get stuck at a desk or lose their jobs if they seek counseling, he said. “It’s about a career, it’s about feeding your family,” he said.

“We had a thing called the death laugh, as morbid as it sounds,” Napolitano said. “But you see so much death that the only way you can get your mind around it or your heart around it is you find something to laugh about with the crew that’s on the scene there.”

jebyrne@chicagotribune.com

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