City to redesign public safety responses to mental health crises


Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot signs an executive order to ensure coronavirus-related benefits offered by the city of Chicago are available to immigrants and refugees, Tuesday morning, April 7, 2020.

In response to a summer of high crime and daily protests of police violence, the City of Chicago has said it plans to redesign the way the city responds to mental health crises.

 Mayor Lori Lightfoot released the city’s “first-ever” comprehensive violence reduction plan, called “Our City, Our Safety,” on Sept. 29. The plan is intended to guide public safety efforts through 2023.

Our City Our Safety by DePaulia on Scribd

 “The epidemic of violence is a national public health crisis that has taken the lives of too many across our city and our entire country,” Lightfoot said in a press release. “Just as Chicago has come together to fight the unprecedented impact of Covid-19 on our communities, we must do the same to address the immense challenges they continue to face due to violence of all kinds.

 To decrease violence by and against people experiencing mental health crises, the plan will provide more opportunities for mental health providers to act as first responders.

“You know, if you call a [mental health] provider and want an appointment, they say, ‘Okay, in six months, we can get you in. If you need something sooner and it’s an emergency, just call 911,’” said Amy Watson, a former professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has extensively researched the intersection of mental illness and policing in Chicago. “And so we have that issue going on — we just haven’t provided services for people.”

 Arturo Carrillo, coordinator of Collaborative for Community Wellness in Brighton Park, said that allowing mental health providers to step in as the authorities in those types of crises might lead to more trust in the system, leading to more people receiving help.

“We hear cases and situations when people are completely fearful of calling 911 to get police involved, and we hear the unfortunate realities of people’s calls 911,” Carrillo said. “When you have [police] responding, they’re trained to do one thing, and that is to address crime and criminal activity. Most of the emotional cases, emotional crises and mental health crises that are funneled through 911, involve police officers responding to situations which police are not equipped to handle.”

 In addition to more specialized training, mental health providers offer an alternative to police response, which might lead to an escalation of violence.

 “If there was a case involving domestic violence, a social worker or mental health professional might be more beneficial,” said Cat Strub, a DePaul student. “In those situations, people are already scared and obviously unstable. Police pose a threat to many and things might escalate.”

 By way of her research, Watson has gone on a number of ride-alongs with officers. She said that they often expressed frustration at the lack of coordination between mental health systems and law enforcement.

“They’re really frustrated that they’re responding to things that should be the mental health system’s job,” she said. “They do what they’ve been asked to do — it may be taking someone to the hospital — and they still see the same people over and over, because even when you take them to the hospital, which is where officers are supposed to take them, the person isn’t provided with the services that they need. So they’re really frustrated that they’re supposed to solve a problem that they don’t have the resources to solve.”

The city’s plan also addresses a need to increase the number of mental health resources available to police officers, some mandatory and others voluntary. Watson said that an increase in resources available to police might make them better equipped to handle the mental health crises of others they are required to respond to, in addition to their own.

 “Parents that are overstressed when they get home from work — they’re going to be really short with their kids, and they’re not going to be the best parent they can be,” she said. “Certainly, police officers aren’t the community’s parents, but they do have power and an authority role. If they’re not doing well, they’re probably not going to use that authority as well, either.”

 Still, some fear the plan might not be comprehensive enough to address the inevitable bumps in the road of redesigning the way the city responds to mental health crises.

 “I think my biggest concern would be the volume,” Carrillo said. “We could see that at the moment that an alternative crisis line goes live, we could get an influx of cases, referred to the system that again will lead to long response times by the crisis response units.”

 But some fears could prove to be more damaging than a system overload. Watson said that she fears that systemic racism in Chicago, left broadly unaddressed in the policy, could leave some parts of the city more underserved than before.

 “We have to be really careful, because everybody talks about under what conditions to go — when it’s safe to do so. Well, how do we judge when it’s safe?” Watson said. “…There’s a big risk that what we’ll end up doing is sending clinicians to the middle class, but still relying on police to go into Black and brown communities, because of biases in how we assess risk and what looks scary to someone.”

 The policy is a step in the right direction, Watson said. But it’s just one facet of a bigger conversation about moving toward more effective, informed policing.

 “I think it’s a first step; I don’t think it’s the final step,” Watson said. “I think it’s a necessary first step, but I think what we’ll discover is that we also have to look at, you know, what are the other services and supports that we need to put in place? Once we’ve improved that crisis response, what’s next so that we can help support people and keep them out of a crisis?”