Suicides show officers need to talk about 'emotional survival,' Buffalo Grove chief says
By Charles Keeshan and Susan Sarkauskas
It happened years ago, but the memory still burns fresh for Buffalo Grove Police Chief Steven Casstevens.
Watching a news report about a rash of officer suicides in a Chicago-area police department, Casstevens looked on with disbelief as the department's chief blamed it on a "weakness" in those who had taken their own lives.
"I was both personally and professionally offended by that answer," Casstevens told us this week. "I decided then that I needed to get involved and do something so that officers know that it's not every chief that thinks like this, because it's not."
Years later, Casstevens remains passionate about preventing suicides among his peers in blue. In fact, when he becomes president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police this fall, suicide prevention will be his top priority.
"We spend a lot of time training on the (shooting) range and teaching de-escalation, which we should, so officers can survive a confrontation on the street," Casstevens said. "Yet, we don't talk about emotional survival, which is just as important."
The numbers, as Casstevens says, are "disturbing." Suicide is becoming the deadliest threat for the men and women of law enforcement in this country.
From 2016 to 2018, more police officers died as a result of suicide -- 478 in all -- than from all line-of-duty causes combined, according to Blue H.E.L.P., a national advocacy group working to prevent law enforcement suicides, honor the service of those who died at their own hand, and eliminate the stigma for officers who seek mental health treatment.
A fourth consecutive year seems certain. So far in 2019, 83 police officers have taken their own lives, compared to 47 killed in the line of duty, according to Casstevens, who leads executive outreach efforts for Blue H.E.L.P.
Law enforcement officers are taking their own lives at a rate "considerably higher" than in the general public, a 2018 white paper by the Ruderman Family Foundation indicates. The report states officer killed themselves at a rate of 17 per 100,000, compared to a general population rate of 13 per 100,000.
Destroying the stigma
When it comes to officer suicides, law enforcement leaders have a good grip on the who, what, when and how, but not so much the why, Casstevens says.
The stress and trauma of police work certainly plays a role, he said.
"In 25 years on the job, we see things that no one should see," he said. "Some officers see a dead body every week. They see victims of child abuse and other violence. Most people can't imagine it."
The Ruderman report says officers on average see 188 "critical incidents" during their careers, leading to rates of depression and PTSD as much as five times higher than that among the civilian population.
Another crucial factor is the real or perceived lack of support for police officers dealing with stress or mental illness. At most, only 5% of the nation's 18,000 law enforcement agencies have suicide prevention training programs, according to the Ruderman paper.
Many officers fear negative consequences, like being assigned to desk work or losing their jobs if they approach leadership seeking help, Casstevens said.
"In our profession, there's a stigma around a police officer who says he or she is in need of help," he said. "We have to destroy that stigma."
That starts at the top.
"Leadership needs to make help available and make it OK to ask for help," Casstevens told us. "If the officers don't believe that their chief or sheriff or colonel will support them, they won't ask for help."
Casstevens doesn't just talk the talk. In Buffalo Grove, he's created a peer support group where his officers can share their struggles and the department employs a full-time social worker available to work with officers.
"It's got to be more than just giving out a phone number," he said.
Going to need a bigger car
Aurora is going to need a stretch convertible limo to transport its Fourth of July parade grand marshal this year.
Mayor Richard Irvin announced this week that 26 emergency dispatchers will share the honor.
Of course, all 26 won't be able to attend -- somebody has to work, on what often is one their busiest days. But at least six have signed up to be in the parade, according to city spokesman Clayton Muhammad.
Irvin -- whose mother is a retired Aurora 911 operator -- said they typically don't like the limelight. "These are the folks behind the scene making it (emergency service) happen," he said.
The parade theme is "Aurora Strong," a phrase that came into use after the shooting at Henry Pratt Co. in Aurora that killed five people. "While this phrase originated from a time of strife, we have turned it into a time of strength," Irvin said.
We're trying to imagine how one would lose a drone. But Naperville police said somebody did, around March 22.
That and dozens of other found items -- mostly bicycles and cellphones -- are in the property evidence room at the police station. Items are held for six months and then, if unclaimed, sold in an online auction. You can check the list on the department's webpage at naperville.il.us.
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Where to call for helpNational Suicide Prevention 24-hour Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK
Crisis Line of Fox Valley: (630) 966-9393
DuPage County Crisis Intervention Unit: (630) 627-1700
Lake County Crisis Care Program 24-hour Hotline: (847) 377-8088
Alexian Brothers Center for Mental Health: (847) 952-7464
Community Crisis Center of Elgin: (847) 697-2380
Kenneth Young Center, Elk Grove Village: (847) 524-8800
National Alliance on Mental Illness for the Northwest Suburbs: (847) 899-0195
OMNI Youth Services in Buffalo Grove: (847) 353-1500