MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To another story now. Over the past five years, police in Chicago have responded to almost 3,000 murders and another 12,000 shootings. All that trauma takes an emotional and mental toll. Here's how former Chicago police officer Brian Warner puts it.
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BRIAN WARNER: There's an officer sitting there in the squad car right now dreading going out on the street, just beside him or herself, wondering, where the hell do I turn?
KELLY: As Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ reports, at least five Chicago police officers have died by suicide since last summer, and the department is trying to cope.
PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: In the past two years, the Chicago Police Department has launched a series of initiatives aimed at bringing down the number of officers suicides. About a year and a half ago, they put out a video featuring melancholy piano and information and where to get health. Sergeant Shawn Kennedy works in the counseling division.
SHAWN KENNEDY: During my career, there are a lot of officers who have taken their lives. And I've - I kind of search back sometimes, asking, what were some of the red flags that may have changed the outcome?
SMITH: Last year, Kennedy was part of a group that went around to each police district to encourage struggling officers to seek help.
KENNEDY: That was the first time that we proactively went out and talked to every district in unit on every watch.
SMITH: Kennedy's hope was to have no officers suicides in 2018. Instead, by the end of the year, five Chicago police officers had died at their own hand. One of them was officer Regine Perpignan, a 26-year veteran of the department, who last September, outside the police station where she worked, shot and killed herself with their service weapon. She was 54, with two daughters and a granddaughter. Roland Perpignan is her brother.
ROLAND PERPIGNAN: To think how much she must have been suffering. To get to that point, you know, you got to be suffering a lot and be in a lot of pain.
SMITH: Perpignan was 1 of 3 Chicago officers last year to take their own life while on duty or on police property. Sergeant Kennedy says that's exceedingly rare.
KENNEDY: In my almost 29 years, I cannot remember the last time we had an officer commit suicide on duty.
CARRIE STEINER: To me, those officers that committed suicide - on duty, in uniform, at work - is showing me that this job killed me.
SMITH: Carrie Steiner used to be a cop. Now, she's a psychologist. She left the Chicago Police Department in 2010 to start the First Responders Wellness Center. She says the Chicago police officers she's treating are often struggling and feeling unsupported. The U.S. Department of Justice estimated that between 2013 and 2015, the suicide rate for Chicago police officers was as much as 60 percent higher than the national average for law enforcement.
Robert Douglas, a former Baltimore police officer and founder of the National Police Suicide Foundation, says the stigma and law enforcement around seeking mental health treatment is cultural and deeply ingrained.
ROBERT DOUGLAS: They train us for everything else. We were taught about how to take care of other people when dealing with the mental health issues out on the street, but we're never taught about how to deal with each other in our field and the issues that we go through.
SMITH: Douglas says police officers almost never kill themselves on duty or on police property, so the fact it happened three times in one year is a sign that something is wrong within the Chicago Police Department. He says the department needs to not only make sure there are enough resources for officers, but there also needs to be a clear and consistent message from the top telling beat cops it's OK to seek help and telling supervisors that the mental health of their officers is essential. Douglas says it's about training frontline supervisors.
DOUGLAS: And teaching them the basic signs and symptoms and teaching them how to make an intervention.
SMITH: It's been more than two years since the U.S. Department of Justice recommended that the Chicago Police Department increase the number of clinical therapists available to officers. There are four counselors right now. They hope to more than double that to 10 by the end of the year, though everyone agrees that additional therapies alone won't make a difference if officers don't think they can be honest about their struggles and supervisors can't tell if one of their own is in trouble. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago.
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