Chicago's cluster of police suicides raises alarms: 'The heroes need saving, too'

"As police officers, they're trained to be the problem-solvers, the heroes," said the brother of an officer who killed herself.
A Chicago police officer was found dead by suicide over Labor Day weekend 2018.
A Chicago police officer was found dead by suicide over Labor Day weekend 2018.NBC Chicago

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By Erik Ortiz

When Roland Perpignan thinks of his younger sister's last drive to work in September, he imagines her in tears over what she was about to do.

Regine Perpignan, a 26-year police veteran in Chicago, parked outside the police force's 5th District headquarters and killed herself with her service weapon.

Her death was one of five suicides of a Chicago officer in the past six months, the most recent occurring on Tuesday, police and union officials said.

Alarmed, Chicago police officials are working to institute changes before more officers succumb to suicide.

A Department of Justice report in 2017 said Chicago's officer suicide rate was 60 percent higher than the national law enforcement average.

And police suicides in general are higher nationally than the number of officers killed in the line of duty. Blue H.E.L.P., a nonprofit made up of active and retired police officers, said at least 159 officers took their own lives in 2018, according to its data, more than the estimated 145 law enforcement officers who died while on the job.

They need to understand that it's OK to get help for themselves."

Mental health awareness advocates and former officers say it's crucial that police officers shed any sense of shame about mental illness in a profession where such issues can often be met with silence.

"Police officers think, 'I'm the person that people go to when they're having issues, so how am I supposed to call somebody else for myself?'" said Carrie Steiner, a clinical psychologist in Chicago and owner of the First Responders Wellness Center, which specializes in treating first responders and veterans.

"But they need to understand that it's OK to get help for themselves, too," Steiner added.

Regine Perpignan, 54, didn't leave a note, but her family and colleagues knew she struggled with depression and had recently been hospitalized. Adding to the family's frustration is the question of whether other officers may have stayed quiet about her fraught mental state because they wanted to help her protect her job.

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"She was put back on duty way too quick," her brother, Roland Perpignan, said Thursday. "It's not that I would blame the police department, but vetting the officers is necessary so that they can go and get the help they need."

Chicago police officials are responding to the recent rash of suicides with changes, such as plans to hire six more counselors for employees, bringing the total to 11. The department is also expanding its peer support program in which officers help one another, and added more clergy to its chaplains' ministry, department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi told NBC News on Thursday.

At the time that the Justice Department found that Chicago's officer suicide rate was far higher than the national law enforcement average, the city's police force had three counselors for a staff of about 13,500 — the same number as in Dallas with a smaller police force of about 3,400, and fewer than the six counselors at the Miami-Dade Police Department, which has 4,600 employees.

A court-ordered federal consent decree proposed last year to bring more accountability to the Chicago Police Department included a call for increased mental health outreach and services for officers.

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said last fall that therapists would be assigned to each department unit, and that all officers involved in a traumatic event would be evaluated, not only those who felt directly affected.

In addition, an Illinois law signed last August eliminated the requirement for officers to have a firearms owners identification card as a condition of their employment. Previously, a card could be revoked for mental health reasons — one explanation for why officers might refrain from seeking help.

About two weeks after Perpignan's death, the Chicago Police Department went the extra step of releasing a video titled, "You Are Not Alone!" to put a spotlight on suicide prevention and mental health.

Then, after the death on New Year's Day of a 36-year-old officer who shot himself at home, the city's police union pledged in a statement to "redouble our efforts to work with the department and the city to make sure help is available for officers." It added that the general morale within the department was low after officers felt "vilified" in the media, were allegedly subject to false claims and harassed in the community.

Steiner said Chicago, where violent crimes and the homicide rate remain high compared to other large cities, has never been an easy place to wear a badge.

Steiner, herself a former city officer for 13 years, said she remembered getting a lesson on self-care as a rookie — but those were days when she was eager to hit the streets. As the years wore on, she realized it was taboo to open up about the mental toll the job took.

"It's unacceptable to talk about getting treatment," Steiner said. "There's going to be an anxiety if I'm your partner and we get into a shooting, and now I'm thinking you're going to put my life on the line because you might have PTSD."

Steiner said Chicago officers have told her that their stress and anxiety levels have been higher since Jason Van Dyke, a former city police officer, was convicted in October of killing black teenager Laquan McDonald.

She said it's important that police departments offer counselors skilled in dealing with trauma and that the ideal is to hire licensed professionals who used to be first responders.

It's essential to treat officers who seek help as fellow humans, "not as damaged goods," Steiner said.

"It's not about telling an officer you were in five bad incidents, now you're probably crazy, so let's get you out of there," she added. "Every officer can be different and can be resilient to different things."

Roland Perpignan wishes his sister had been given more opportunities to get the help she needed. This past holiday season without her — a loving woman who was "everybody's best friend" — was heartbreaking, he added.

"As police officers, they're trained to be the problem-solvers, the heroes," he said. "Sometimes the heroes need saving, too."

Editor's note: If you are looking for help, please call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text the Crisis Text Line for help by messaging 741741 with the word HOME; police officers should text the word BLUE.