The Oak Park Village Board voted to enter a $20,000 agreement to provide one-on-one mental health sessions for every sworn Oak Park police officer. During the board’s Oct. 19 meeting, Police Chief LaDon Reynolds said the department was “trying to establish a culture of wellness, not only physical but mental wellness.”

The police department has a force of 106 officers but an authorized strength of 121 officers, according to the request for proposal. Clinicians within the chosen provider, First Responders Wellness Center (FRWC), are former fire and police first responders.

“There’s also evidence that officers are more likely or more inclined to open up to someone who understands the profession,” Reynolds told the board. 

The one-year agreement began Oct. 20, the day after the board meeting. The village has the option to renew the agreement for two additional one-year terms. Licensed mental health professionals will provide 55-minute sessions per individual sworn officer to assess their ability to manage with job stressors and learn additional healthy coping strategies, according to the FRWC proposal.         

“Officers have a tendency to internalize a lot of the trauma that’s associated with the job,” said Reynolds, who added that he planned to take part in the program.

The job stressors of working in law enforcement can present difficulties for officers outside of the job as well, including interactions with family and friends, according to Reynolds.

The sessions are neither a fitness for duty examination nor a form of punishment. It is also not intended to be a screening for mental health disorders or diagnoses.

“Anything we can do to facilitate a healthy officer is something we need to push forward,” said Reynolds.

FRWC is only required to provide information regarding the mental health status of an officer to the employer under legal mandate.

“If they identify something that requires additional therapy, that’s between them and the officer,” said Reynolds. “But if it meets the level of some sort of legal mandate, they would make the notification.”

If an officer presents a mental health issue during sessions that does not meet the threshold necessitating a legal mandate, the clinician will recommend the officer seek voluntary treatment and provide resources, the FRWC proposal states.

According to Reynolds, the program came highly recommended by the police chief in the village of Mundelein.

“The police chief has provided rave reviews and the officers have appreciated the program,” said Reynolds. “It’s been met with very positive responses from the officers.”

The program provides such services as trauma support, group therapy, incident debriefing and crisis intervention. Officers have the option to attend sessions via telehealth, meaning virtual face-to-face sessions.

“FRWC clinicians use evidenced-based treatment for trauma-informed care which includes: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, trauma and Prolonged Exposure (PE) therapy,” the FRWC proposal states.

The village board was widely supportive of entering the agreement, with the exception of Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who believed the program unnecessary as officers already have the option to seek mental health services through their health insurance.

“Why is the village paying an extra $20,000 for this? Officers can get this mental health care through their current health care plans,” said Walker-Peddakotla.

Reynolds acknowledged that Walker-Peddakotla’s statement was correct but stated the intention behind entering a mental health services agreement specific to the police department was integral to changing the culture of law enforcement.

“There is research that suggests there’s a stigma inside professional law enforcement as it relates to individuals seeking out mental health care,” said Reynolds.

Having an established program within the police department would help to destigmatize such services, he explained.

“Many years ago, an officer who would need that type of care, if that information was disclosed or if someone found out, they would be afraid that they would lose their job or be viewed as less than,” said Reynolds.

The Oak Park Police Department is entering the FRWC program with the goal of eradicating that ethos among its sworn officers.

“Mental health concerns are the same as physical health concerns; you just can’t see them,” said Reynolds.

Walker-Peddakotla said she understood the stressors associated with law enforcement and the need for mental health services, given her experience as a military veteran, but employees should utilize services available under their insurance.

“Furthermore, I think that what we need is mental health care for our citizens, first and foremost,” said Walker-Peddakotla, who cited the board’s decision to end village funding of the joint-taxing-body Youth Interventionist program in 2020.

 She said the village should create better avenues for citizens to receive mental health services and that “mental health first responders,” not associated with the Oak Park Police Department, should be hired.

Trustee Simone Boutet said she agreed with funding the Youth Interventionist program but did not think it superseded the need to provide mental health services specific to police officers.

“This to me is an affirmative program,” Boutet said. “This is a pushout that is mandatory for the officers so that they are well balanced.”

A nationwide concern, Boutet continued, is identifying officers who are “not well balanced” to provide them with treatment so that their mental health issues do not impact the safety services they provide.

Trustee Deno Andrews called the program a “good, early interventionist mechanism,” while Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb gave the agreement his full support.

The village board voted 6-1 to approve the agreement, with Walker-Peddakotla casting the single dissenting vote.

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