Evanston Police Detective Amin Virani vividly remembers a case he worked as an evidence technician in 2018.
Responding to a distress call from a man who found his wife dead, Virani arrived
at the scene and found that the woman had died by suicide. Years passed, but the memory still lingers for him.
“I remember going into the space that she was in and seeing her back towards me,”
said Virani. “I looked up at her, and she had very similar features to my wife – same color hair, same kind of hairline, same type of clothing that my wife wears.”
The scene stopped him cold, but he did his job as if nothing happened. Yet, it struck a chord.
“After we left, I went to my car and I called my wife,” he remembered. “I asked her,
‘Are you OK?’”
In 2016, EPD Detective Rebecca Niziolek had given birth to her first child just a couple of months earlier when the department asked her to lead an investigation into an infant’s death.
Although the baby died in the hospital, she went to family’s home to check in, a regular practice to confirm that the death did not result from a crime.
“I can remember going into the baby’s nursery, then going back into the kitchen and behind the wall, trying to hold myself together because I just wanted to cry,” Niziolek said. “That was just overwhelmingly difficult, to think that the family was not going to be able to bring their baby home.”
On the way back to police headquarters, she called a victim advocate who had also gone to the baby’s nursery earlier that day. The two women gave themselves a moment to grapple with the emotional toll the case had taken on them.
“There are certainly cases I’ve handled that will stay with me forever,” said Niziolek, who said she often turns to other law enforcement officers as a coping mechanism. “I don’t talk about the things that I see and do at work with my parents or my siblings or my friends if they’re not in law enforcement. I don’t want them to have to hear that side of humanity or for them to think about me having to deal with that.”
Suicide, death, sexual and domestic violence, fights and poverty – those are just some of the things Evanston police and other first responders often face on the job. “People will go through two or three traumatic incidents in their life,” Virani said. “For police, they usually go through several within a month or two.”
Those experiences take a toll. More police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Nearly 25% of all officers experience suicidal thoughts at some point in their career. In smaller departments, the suicide rate increases to almost four times the national average.
“Policing is a hard job, but having a good team around you is critical to making it actually work,” said Grace Carmichael, a school resource officer at Evanston Township High School and a manager of EPD’s peer support team. “I think we’ve managed to do that here in Evanston.”
We Never Walk Alone program
The peer support team of trained police officers that Carmichael helps lead has provided mental health aid to Evanston law enforcement since 2006. Currently, 17 officers support the full EPD force of 130, but in February, the department joined a new program designed to encourage greater participation by expanding the support network to dozens of peer counselors in a way that ensures confidentiality.
That program, We Never Walk Alone, can be accessed by computer or smart phone. Each peer support officer provides their contact information, availability and a list of topics they are comfortable discussing, like PTSD, trauma, divorce/child custody, tactical/SWAT operations.
“When you open the app, you can see every peer support member’s profile,” Niziolek said. “If someone doesn’t want to talk to us, they can talk to a different peer support member that’s a first responder but not at our police department.”
Peer support in police departments decreases the barriers for officers seeking
mental health resources, according to Niziolek, especially with more than 300 officers across Illinois now available to help through the app.
“We don’t want to just go and talk to just anybody because as a first responder, we see and handle and deal with very unique things that not everyone can understand or relate to,” she said. “We prefer to stay within our circle of comfort.”
When joining the program, every department has to commit for three years and contribute 7% to 10% of the total number of sworn police officers in the network.
“Some agencies will have their own peer support network, and they will be contributing immediately after joining,” said program manager Geethaprema Radhakrishnan, who works for the Schaumburg-based firm Vélan Solutions, which developed the app for We Never Walk Alone. “For some, we give them time up to 15 months to conduct peer support training.”
In addition to peer support officers and training programs, the app provides a directory of therapists and a list of resources on mental well-being, physical fitness, resiliency, stress and trauma, training and policies.
Using their personal login, every law enforcement agent in this program can also access a self-assessment test, and the results can later be sent to their email address or deleted. The app provides six different self assessments: PTSD, substance use disorder, depression, anxiety, professional/occupation stress test and stressful life events inventory. Each test contains 10 questions.
“If I’m working with someone as a peer supporter, and they’re telling me they’re fine, but what I’m hearing from them is that they might need someone more than me to speak to, we can take the self-assessment test right there on this app,” said Niziolek. “And it’s completely confidential.”
Removing the stigma
We Never Walk Alone was launched in 2019 at the request of then-Chief William Kushner of the Des Plaines Police Department and in collaboration with Vélan Solutions. Kushner and Vélan prioritized providing full confidentiality to everyone using the app.
Radhakrishnan said the idea started with an in-person peer support program in the Des Plaines Police Department. But their meetings quickly ran into a problem typical in law enforcement across the nation: Many police officers did not seek mental health support even when it was available for them.
“They were afraid it’s going to get reported back to the command staff. In other words, I’m going to tell Joe, Joe is going to tell Cindy, Cindy is going to tell the chief, and I’m going to end up on a suspension,” Kushner said.
Beyond suspension, a bigger fear for officers was losing their state Firearm Owners Identification card. Without that card, authorizing them to carry a weapon, they might lose their job.
“If you’re already spiraling, if you’re suicidal, and you’re gonna go seek help, and then you find out you’ve lost your job. How does that help anybody?” Niziolek said.
Some people in law enforcement also keep mental health problems hidden because they fear revealing personal issues and do not want to be seen as weak. But the app doesn’t keep or track personal data. “We Never Walk Alone allows officers to keep themselves ‘behind the screen’ and explain what they’re feeling,” Radhakrishnan said.
The message, too, is that it takes courage to seek help.
“Our culture is that we’re meant to help people. That’s our job. We go out there, and we fix people’s problems,” said Virani, the EPD detective. “I think there’s a false belief that because we help fix other people’s problems, we should be able to fix our own.”
Raising awareness about the mental and emotional struggles that police officers face in their daily work is a crucial next step, EPD officers and We Never Walk Alone supporters said.
“We’re humans too, and we’re not just robots out here walking around, telling people what to do,” said Carmichael. “We actually do have feelings, and a lot of the stuff that we see does impact us personally.”
Megija Medne is a second-year student at Northwestern studying journalism. She reported this story for a class on police, race and community in Evanston.
I can’t imagine personally how they cope. I have SO MUCH respect for them! I imagine their families must always worry that maybe they may not make it home that night. Especially upsetting today when crimes are committed by younger and younger kids. Who was to think that one day an 8 year old would take a gun magazine to school??? A 13 year old a loaded gun to class???? Why are young kids today thinking about guns??? What’s happening to our society? To our families? I am told that today the issue is the large number of one parent families…..
It must be very disturbing for these people —our police— to have to tackle these issues day by day. I remember being in London, UK, years back and watching the “Bobbies” walk around with only a stick or “baton” hanging from their waste. Chatting with people, talking to kids… That was years back….
Quoting from the well-written article — “Policing is a hard job, but having a good team around you is critical to making it actually work,” said Grace Carmichael, a school resource officer at Evanston Township High School and a manager of EPD’s peer support team. “I think we’ve managed to do that here in Evanston.”
The police are my heroes. I cannot imagine how dangerous and difficult their jobs are. All citizens of Evanston owe them more than we can ever pay them.
The police support team is very active and successful. However, there are members of Evanston’s city council and city staff that openly tried to defund them in 2020 and 2021 (and, frankly, still are).
Swimming with the political current, our heroes were shamefully mocked by the mayor, certain aldermen, and members of our all-too-political religious community. Protests were encouraged and property was destroyed. Anti-police graffiti was allowed to be written on the street by the police station.
When our city needed its leaders our leaders joined the mob.
This disdain for our police force sadly remains in Evanston. If readers want names, I can provide them. My memories of this time run very, very deep.
Today, in 2023, the EPD is dogged by low officer morale and low retention rates. We are understaffed by more than 30 officers and our detective team has been cut by 50%. The remaining detectives only focus on violent crimes and the reduced force limits investigations into incidents involving stolen vehicles and burglaries.
We owe our police officers so much. I will always remember when our city failed them. But today – just like yesterday – I will always have their backs.
Jay Garrick, proud Evanston citizen