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Illinois police chief blames officers’ suicides on ‘weakness’

(MCT) — Three Waukegan, Ill., police officers have killed themselves since May 2011, and Chief Daniel Greathouse says he’s working to stem an “epidemic” in his department.

But three days after the third officer’s funeral, Greathouse emailed his department and said the suicides had nothing to do with the pressures of police work and were related to the victims’ “weakness.”

“These suicides were about personal choices, selfishness and weakness,” he wrote Jan. 19 in an email obtained by the Chicago Tribune.

Police psychologists said that was not the message officers needed to hear — that feeling pain and seeking help doesn’t mean an officer is weak or incapable. Police have been slow to acknowledge their suffering in part because of a culture of silence in law enforcement and the stigmatization of mental illness, psychologists and police mental health advocates said.

Not enough data exist to establish a reliable police suicide rate, but advocates believe officers face a higher risk because the job’s stresses can compound an officer’s personal or mental health problems. Chiefs have a key role in encouraging mental wellness, psychologists and advocates said, because their attitudes can influence whether officers get help or suffer in secret.

“What person in his right mind would seek mental health treatment knowing that the person in command has already shown them it’s a signal of weakness and selfishness?” said Laurence Miller, a police psychologist based in Florida.

Greathouse told the Tribune there is no evidence that any of the suicides were linked to police work. Asked about the email, which he sent in response to another officer’s message, Greathouse said he was going through an anger stage of grieving after going to the third funeral and giving the man’s badges to his daughters.

“They say you should never respond to an email when you are angry. I say you should also never respond to an email when you are grieving the loss of a friend,” he wrote in an email.

Greathouse said he plans to use “every resource available” as he develops suicide awareness and prevention programs.

The widow of Mark Sturtevant, the second officer to die, said she doesn’t think police work is to blame for his death, and said he wouldn’t have felt comfortable seeking help, illustrating the difficulty of getting officers the help they may need.

“He would have said that, you know, ‘If I were ever to go to counseling or seek help or whatever, people would think I was crazy, and they wouldn’t think I could do my job as well and they wouldn’t respect me,’ ” Lisa Sturtevant said.

The first to take his life was Officer Mark Jacobs, who died of a gunshot wound in his Palatine, Ill., home in May 2011, according to a Cook County Medical Examiner’s office report.

Less than 11 months later, Sturtevant, 43, hanged himself in a co-worker’s Gurnee, Ill., home, where he’d sometimes stayed when having family problems toward the end of his life, according to the Lake County coroner’s office. He left behind a 21-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son, his family said. He was the third son to commit suicide in a family of three brothers and two sisters, his mother said.

On Jan. 10, Sgt. Peter Michaels, 42, was found dead of a gunshot wound in a wooded area near Antioch, Ill., authorities said. The coroner’s office has not ruled on the cause, but his death appears to have been a suicide, said Wayne Hunter, chief deputy of the Lake County sheriff’s office. Michaels had a wife and two daughters, according to an obituary.

Their colleagues are reeling from one loss after another, said Officer Chris Rohloff, president of the union that represents Waukegan patrol officers.

“Everyone is in grief, and it seems like every time you get out of grief, there’s another one,” he said.

Jacobs’ family declined to comment. Michaels’ family could not be reached.

With three deaths during a 20-month span, the 141-officer department’s recent suicide rate is vastly higher than the general population’s. The U.S. suicide rate was 12.4 per 100,000 in 2010 — or slightly more than one suicide for every 10,000 people, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A reliable rate for police is elusive, as there is no nationwide system of reporting, police mental health advocates said. A soon-to-be-released national study relying on online reports and information from agencies puts the rate for officers in 2012 at about 16 suicides per 100,000 people, said one of the study’s authors, John Violanti, a University at Buffalo research professor.

Police mental health advocates argue the numbers suggest higher risk for officers. Like the public, police struggle with personal and mental health problems, and advocates said those burdens can be compounded by the circumstances of police work, including the stress of potential harm, access to guns and the trauma — or post-traumatic stress disorder — than can come from seeing violence and death.

Police mental health advocate Ron Clark, a former Connecticut officer, remembered seeing an 8-year-old girl die in 1973 after she was hit by a car.

“I can tell you what she was wearing,” said Clark, chairman of the board of the California-based nonprofit Badge of Life. “I haven’t met an officer in my career and in my lifetime that hasn’t been affected by the job.”

Greathouse told the Tribune all three Waukegan officers struggled with personal problems. All three were “exemplary officers,” he said, and he noted that officers undergo psychiatric evaluations when they’re hired.

Speaking generally, mental health professionals said much can change about officers’ mental condition after they’re hired and sent on patrol. And there’s a “reciprocal relationship” between officers’ personal troubles and job pressures, said Robert Sobo, a clinical therapist and acting director of the Chicago Police Department’s counseling program.

After the first death in Waukegan, Greathouse said, the department brought in grief counselors, and command staff encouraged officers to use the employee assistance program, which can arrange counseling or other help. Following the second death, departmental leaders pressed supervisors to communicate more with officers and continued promoting the employee assistance program, Greathouse said.

“Prior to this last suicide, I had to order three officers to seek assistance through our (employee assistance program),” he wrote in an email in response to Tribune questions. “There were some success stories. Nevertheless, we needed to do more.”

The third death inspired a “full court press,” the chief said. Officers will go through suicide prevention and awareness training, and Greathouse said he plans to mandate that all officers undergo new psychiatric evaluations, himself included.

Departmental leaders have established a schedule for counselors to be in the department to speak with officers, and he’s working on a program for officers’ families, he said. The department also sent personnel to a recent suicide prevention seminar, he said.

Supervisors have handed out fliers reminding officers of the employee assistance program, Greathouse said, and reminders of the program have been installed on the department’s computer monitors.

“We’re in a fight, and we need to fight with everything we have,” he said.

On Jan. 17, Greathouse emailed employees to say he’d spoken with a Tribune reporter and asked them to be cautious when talking about the suicides. He said the Tribune had “tawdry” details.

Two days later, an officer emailed Greathouse to plead with the chief to improve morale and “please do something to change the atmosphere in this police department.”

That night, Greathouse wrote back that the suicides weren’t related to job pressures. He said Michaels “probably had the least stressful job on the department,” Sturtevant had been out with an injury and Jacobs was a “solid officer” happy with his shift.

After citing weakness and selfishness, Greathouse said officers bear responsibility for their own happiness.

“In my humble opinion, that’s why this country is so screwed up these days,” he wrote. “This younger generation wants everyone else to solve their problems for them, make them happy and clear the easy path for them.”

Lisa Sturtevant said Greathouse’s description of her husband as weak and selfish was not fair, and Rohloff, the union leader, said the comments were inappropriate. The union took a vote of no confidence against Greathouse in 2011, and Rohloff said he still favors the chief’s removal.

The chief’s statement about weakness was “horrible,” said Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation. People don’t kill themselves because they’re weak or selfish, he said, but because they don’t see another way to stop their pain. He noted that U.S. servicemen and women have been committing suicide in record numbers.

“Would you ever, ever describe them in the form that this chief has described (the three officers)?” he asked.

Greathouse told the Tribune he came from an “old school” generation of police who viewed mental health care skeptically. But he said he’d learned a lot about suicide since the three deaths.

“I still believe that striving to maintain mental wellness is as much a person’s responsibility as maintaining one’s physical fitness and healthy eating. … However, we must do everything we can to provide the proper resources to help our officers fight this killer,” he wrote in an email to the Tribune.

Though silence and stigmatization remain, departments have generally warmed to mental health care in recent years, psychologists said. Local agencies’ concern was clear last month as hundreds of police gathered in an Oak Brook, Ill., hotel conference room for a seminar on officer suicide.

As graying, clean-cut officers from various departments sipped coffee and soda, Douglas, the former Baltimore officer who heads the National Police Suicide Foundation, shared officers’ suicide notes and discussed characteristics common to police who have killed themselves, including relationship troubles and alcohol abuse. To knowing glances, Douglas advised against encouraging heavy drinking at departmental social functions.

“Listen to me, police administrators — do not have open bars,” he said.

Experts and psychologists offered a range of tactics for helping officers. Suggestions included training “peer support officers” to talk with co-workers and route them toward professional help if needed, educating officers and families on handling stress and holding debriefings after traumatic incidents.

The Chicago Police Department employs three clinical counselors, three officers trained as substance abuse counselors, and another who manages a peer support program, said Sobo, who supervises the programs. Along with training officers and families on the job’s consequences, the department keeps a clinical counselor, a substance abuse counselor and a peer support officer on call 24 hours a day, he said.

Late last year, a state task force on police suicide delivered recommendations to lawmakers. Among the suggestions were additional training programs and a confidential hotline officers could call and get referrals for care for various problems. It remains to be seen what legislation might result.

While psychologists said law enforcement culture is shifting toward acceptance of modern mental health care and openness among officers, California police psychologist Susan Saxe-Clifford cautioned, “If it’s improved 300 percent, it still has a way to go.”

Mementos of Mark Sturtevant’s career are everywhere in his family’s Gurnee home. A photo shows his daughter braiding the shaggy hair he grew when he worked on an anti-drug squad. A Christmas tree still stood in late January, its most noticeable ornament a badge crossed by a black band.

His survivors don’t blame his job. Lisa Sturtevant said she believes her husband, a former Army police officer, lived with undiagnosed, untreated depression. Shortly before he died, he was off duty with a back injury and staying outside his home because of family problems, she said.

Sturtevant and his siblings grew up with an emotionally abusive father, said their mother, Carole Sturtevant. One brother, Michael Sturtevant, committed suicide in 1983, and a second brother, Jeffrey Sturtevant, killed himself in 1990, his mother said through tears. Mark Sturtevant promised at the second funeral he wouldn’t die the same way, his widow said.

“I never thought he would … ” his mother said. “Ever.”

Lisa Sturtevant said the Waukegan Police Department could have had a battery of programs and her husband wouldn’t have used them voluntarily. He wasn’t willing to talk about his problems, she said.

Her hope, she said, is that officers find whatever support they need and no one else dies.

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