The Chicago Police Department has a challenge with dealing with issues of wellness for its officers, particularly those in the field. Chicago is one of the largest cities in the nation. It has a police force commensurate with its size. These officers deal with an unprecedented level of crime and violence in the course of their daily work. Research shows that police officers are among the most stressed people in the nation. Their work rarely allows them to unwind. Further, Chicago is a particularly significant case as there is a stigma against seeking wellness services. Compounding this is the limited number of counseling professionals in the force.
Context and Scope of the Problem
It is important to have a focus on maintaining officer wellness given the pressures of the job and its obligations upon officers in the line of duty. Policing is a high stress job and members of the force who work in high crime areas experience the worst of it. These police officers spend their days living in tense conditions as they work to resolve local issues while maintaining professional calm. Because the public has no such obligation, and many members of the public are actively working against the police, the job can have serious implications for the health of officers. Policing is a high stress job and the Chicago police department deals with some of the worst of it.
When officers work under high stress conditions without relief, it leads them to adopt unhealthy strategies to handle the challenges of the job. People universally acknowledge police work is uniquely difficult and stressful. Officers see things that most people find traumatic. These shocking sights cause them to reevaluate their spirituality, their history, and their jobs (Tovar, 2011). At the same time, these incidents also lead police officers to engage various destructive coping mechanisms. Police officers often turn to substance abuse and alcoholism to deal with the trauma of their work (Mumford, Taylor & Kubu, 2014). While police officers have the same health profile as most of the population, they present higher morbidity and other health challenges due to unresolved stress from their work.
Similarly, the community also suffers when police officer wellness does not receive proper consideration, as the officers themselves do not maintain the highest policing standards. High stress conditions bring out different facets in people. Under certain conditions, different members of any group begin to break and act in an uncharacteristic or unplanned fashion. In the case of police officers, this often results in violent outbreaks and testiness. Under stress, certain officers become more trigger happy, tending to unleash bullets for various reasons, real or imagined (Donner, Maskaly, Piquero & Jennings, 2017). Naturally, this lowers the standard of policing in a community showing the consequences of failing to take into account officer wellness.
Significance of Issue, Nationwide and in Chicago
Policing is a difficult job across all counters, and police officers regularly report higher levels of job related stress, as well as other personal struggles to deal with the burdens of their work. Policing across the United States is subject to state law, and officers dealing with challenges in their target states often find themselves under greater levels of individual stress than the rest of the population (Mumford, Taylor & Kubu, 2014). This stress bleeds out into their personal lives, affecting them in a severe fashion. It also hamstrings their ability to be effective and balanced police officers. In many cases, police departments have specialized facilities to deal with these issues. The difficult job of policing is an issue around the nation, and it is common for police officers to find themselves under high levels of stress from the basics of carrying out their duty.
Within the city of Chicago, police officers have extremely high levels of stress from their work that tends to come out in destructive and unproductive ways. Chicago is one of the more seriously crime ridden cities in the United States. As the level of violence is high, Chicago police officers encounter much more severe issues in relation to the daily duties of their jobs. Chicago police officers deal with many more shootings and assaults than law enforcement in other cities of a comparable size and population. Consequently, these officers also have serious issues they need to manage. As the report notes, “CPD officers grapple with alcoholism and suicide, and some engage in domestic violence” (“Investigation of the Chicago Police Department”, 2017). Such problems naturally bleed over into the officers’ personal lives, where they hurt themselves and other individuals.
The first policy alternative that the Chicago Police Department should explore is the importance of professional counseling, especially given the relative paucity of counselors within the department, as compared to other comparable police departments. The Chicago Police Department has a woefully small number of counselors. This means that providing counseling for the officers who have been in the line of duty is unrealistic and rushed. Even officers who do receive counseling receive it in hurried meetings often cut short to allow another officer a turn (“Investigation of the Chicago Police Department”, 2017). It is possible that an increase in counseling could play a major role in reducing the stress levels of police officers in the city, as well as helping them manage their own stress.
The fact that few Chicago Police Department officers receive any counseling has contributed to a culture that may be unhelpful, one where counseling is something for the weak in the department. Chicago has the third largest police force in the entire nation. With more than ten thousand officers however, the force has a grand total of four counselors and an intern. This shows the seriousness with which the department takes counseling. Officers themselves also see the counseling as something that might result in the confiscation of one’s weapon (“Investigation of the Chicago Police Department”, 2017). Finally, the department members also view counseling as something weak officers who cannot handle the conditions of their work in Chicago engage in.
The final policy alternative would be to include women and women officers in this process of stress management as some theorize they can introduce a different angle to the whole experience. Officer morale within the department is low. Different members of the force feel abandoned or mistreated and there is much room for improvement. One group within the Chicago PD who receive little acknowledgement are the women. Few of the wellness programs make accommodations for the unique issues that women face (“Investigation of the Chicago Police Department”, 2017). Perhaps developing strategies to include the women in these policies would improve the effectiveness of these programs.
The first and most obvious recommendation regarding wellness is that the Chicago PD take the matter of officer counseling seriously, beginning with the securing of psychiatric facilities commensurate with the staff who need them. Chicago is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the United States. Officers have so much work to do. Much of this work happens under extremely difficult and stressful conditions. Whatever the officers might say or communicate, they will certainly benefit from a process of unloading in confidence. The research shows that such unloading is effective for emotional self-management (Parks & Steelman, 2008). This will allow them to dial back their stress and return to a reasonable stasis. For this reason, the Chicago PD has a clear and major responsibility to honor the needs of its officers through providing counseling services.
The second and related recommendation is to work through the stigma of counseling with the officers to eliminate it and allow them to seek the help they need. The officers have the wrong idea about what counseling entails. They see it as a process for individuals who have experienced extreme trauma and who need help just to resume their basic functions. As they are quite capable of managing those basic functions, the officers see the counseling as superfluous and potentially emasculating. The solution to these concerns is to make the process of counseling mandatory for officers who have experienced high stress conditions. At the same time, reassure the officers that they will not lose their guns because of their experience in therapy. These steps will help minimize the stigma that keeps officers from seeking therapy to help them manage their work-related stress.
Donner, C. M., Maskaly, J., Piquero, A. R., & Jennings, W. G. (2017). Quick on the Draw. Police Quarterly,20(2), 213-234. doi:10.1177/1098611116688066
United States Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Office. (2017). Investigation of the Chicago Police Department(pp. 1-161).
Mumford, E. A., Taylor, B. G., & Kubu, B. (2014). Law Enforcement Officer Safety and Wellness. Police Quarterly,18(2), 111-133. doi:10.1177/1098611114559037
Parks, K. M., & Steelman, L. A. (2008). Organizational wellness programs: A meta-analysis. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology,13(1), 58-68. doi:10.1037/1076-89184.108.40.206
Tovar, L. A. (2011). Vicarious Traumatization and Spirituality in Law Enforcement. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin,16-21.