Constable: Not everything is 9/11, but first responders all face stress. A new website aims to help.
Reliving the sorrow and heroism of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, we remember the outpouring of love and admiration for the men and women who rushed into the chaos to help 20 years ago.
"After 9/11, the appreciation for first responders was off the charts, and deservedly so," says retired Des Plaines Police Chief Bill Kushner. During his 45 years as a police officer, Kushner, 68, also saw how the everyday trauma cops face can take a toll. That's why he gathered a team of professionals to create We Never Walk Alone, a first of its kind website with apps to connect law enforcement officers with trained peer support officers and vetted mental health professionals.
Kushner and veteran Des Plaines police counselor Vickie Poklop received the 2020 Excellence in Public Service award from The Illinois Security Professionals Association for their work in creating WeNeverWalkAlone.org, and teaming with Amita Health Holy Family Medical Center in Des Plaines to establish Saint Michael's House, which features a team of addiction medicine physicians, registered nurses, licensed social workers and counselors to serve police officers.
"The average individual experiences three critical incidents in their lifetime," Kushner says, whether that means witnessing an accident, being involved in a shooting or watching a loved one pass away. "The average police officer experiences 800 or 1,000 critical incidents."
Just two weeks after graduating from the police academy and accepting a job as a Chicago police officer, Kushner shot a person while responding to a crime. "Everybody said, 'Nice job, kid. Let's go to a bar,'" Kushner remembers. While the suspect lived and the shooting was justified, Kushner declined to celebrate. "Absolutely not. After being involved in a shooting, the last thing I wanted was to get a beer," says Kushner, who talked about his feelings with friends he met during training, but notes that he would have gotten professional help if offered.
Retired Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko, who taught a class in critical-incident response, says those moments can accumulate during an officer's career.
"You just don't clock out and come home without carrying the weight of the job with you," says Filenko, who also served as commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force. "It creeps up on you. It chips away at you."
But police officers don't always feel comfortable seeking help in their own department. "There is a beauty-shop mentality," Kushner says, explaining how an officer seeking help worries that his confidant might tell someone else, and the ensuing rumors and gossip could affect assignments, promotions and other aspects of the job.
Meeting through a mutual friend, Poklop explained that problem to Vijay Harikrishna, founder of Vélan Solutions, a custom software development studio in Schaumburg. Harikrishna developed the We Never Walk Alone website, which offers help 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
"It took him less than three minutes to convince me this was something that was needed and long overdue," says Filenko, who joined the founding advisory panel for We Never Walk Alone, along with Kushner, Poklop, Harikrishna, retired Des Plaines police officer and public relations specialist Tara Goble, and Wheaton psychologist Marla Friedman.
Friedman already serves as chair and Harikrishna as director of technology on the board for Badge of Life, a Streamwood-based organization seeking to prevent police officer suicides.
"I have seen the loss of hope and how it can send someone spiraling down," says Harikrishna, 42, who developed the software that lets officers using We Never Walk Alone connect with peers and professionals without leaving a paper trail.
The organization charges a monthly $2 fee per officer in every participating department. While getting officers help is the right thing to do, it also is cheaper financially than the cost of dealing with the aftermath of problems caused by untreated mental health issues.
"I can't tell you what the return on your investment will be, because we don't know. There is no tracking," says Kushner, who now works as a senior consultant at P-4 Security Solutions. But suburban police departments see the value. Today, the site boasts 47 member departments, 90% of which are smaller suburban forces with fewer than 50 sworn officers.
The most recent officer killed on duty in Illinois was Chicago Police Officer Ella French, 29, who was shot to death last month after pulling over a vehicle for having an expired license plate. "Suburban police officers make a lot of traffic stops, and there's no such thing as a routine traffic stop," Kushner says.
We Never Walk Alone has vetted 56 mental health professionals from across the nation, who work with insurance companies and make sure officers get the care they need, Kushner says. While 226 have been trained as peer counselors, the agency is looking to start its own training program.
In addition to dealing with the stress of the job ("Kid cases are the worst, absolutely the worst," Kushner says), officers can come to We Never Walk Alone for help with finances, relationships, parenting or other issues.
Filenko notes that the coronavirus and the attention put on law enforcement after the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 have added to the stress, especially for police officers trying to serve and protect.
"Nobody hates a bad cop worse than a good cop," Kushner says, and good cops can use mental health help, too.
"Cops in general want to serve. We want to help. It's in our nature," Kushner says. "Sometimes coppers just need affirmation that they are doing a good job."