Early Warning Program or Stigma?

Recently, Superintendent Eddie Johnson of the Chicago Police Department announced the department has plans to launch an early warning program to help at-risk officers. The idea is to identify officers struggling with issues at home or on the job. Their intent is to reach out to these officers and provide the counseling needed to help them through problems.

The superintendent was quick to point out this would help both the officer and the community.

This sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? In a perfect world, the department would be there to help support officers in their times of need. Kind of like a big brother, right?

I contacted Kevin Graham, president of Chicago’s FOP Lodge 7 for his input. As president of the union and collective bargaining agent representing all sworn police officers below the rank of sergeant, I expected the FOP to be involved in this program.

Graham said the FOP has been involved in two sit-down meetings with the department to discuss this program. It is based somewhat on a program out of California. At this stage, this isn’t much more than the early warning programs the department discussed four or five years ago. At this point, his greatest concern is protecting the identities of his membership and guarding against using the program for disciplinary actions.

My opinion of our conversation was the FOP had not yet been shown much from the department and didn’t know where it fits with the current contract.

I asked if there was a plan to assure the officer’s confidentiality. Graham said that is a big issue. Moreover, it hasn’t been satisfactorily addressed at this point.

Thank you, Kevin, for answering my questions as honestly and openly as you can at this point. I know you were limited as to what you could discuss.

warning program

(Photo courtesy Antoinette Alcazar)

In a perfect world, an officer would be found in need of assistance and then receive it. Yet, in real life, an officer found to be at risk gets his name put on a list. Once there is a list it’s discoverable in court, or when a freedom of information requests get filed. Next thing you know an officer who has been put on the at-risk list is now reading his name in the paper as some community group determines that at-risk officers cannot be placed in positions of responsibility. This same officer has done nothing wrong. However, cases involving him as the arresting officer now get tossed out of court because he is an at-risk officer.

This same officer later gets a complaint and the city is in court because they should have known better than to put this at-risk officer on the street.

How is the department going to handle these officers? Take them off the street? Where do you put them? Are there certain watches that are better for them? If you move them to another watch have you violated the union contracts?

The stigma of being labeled at-risk can do far more damage to the department and the officers. As it stands now officers don’t trust the department with personal information. To have the department looking into their private family lives is frightening.

Peer support and other counseling programs have had mixed results all because officers were afraid of the stigma associated with them.

Just yesterday I heard an item on the news about the huge amount the city is paying in civil lawsuits because of officers.

If the city is willing to settle out of court rather than take them to trial this will continue. The plaintiff’s attorneys know the city will settle for less than a trial will cost. A $50,000 settlement gets the case settled and out of the city’s hair. It would have cost three times as much to go to trial. It’s a great business and there are a group of attorneys who make a fortune simply by suing the police.

An at-risk label on an officer is the same as a bullseye.

Years back when a similar program was suggested it was met with this same argument and it was set aside. Now someone is breathing life into it again and this is only going to hurt. Call me paranoid but every program the department ever instituted that was meant to help officers has eventually been used against them. I’m afraid this might be another one.

Perhaps you come from a department with an at-risk program that will provide an early warning. How has it worked and how do the officers receive it? Your feedback is welcomed.

Remember to run low and zigzag,

– Robert Weisskopf