Ald. Rossana Rodriguez speaks to a police officer during a peace march in Albany Park on Sept. 20, 2020. Credit: Facebook

CHICAGO — As protests continue in Philadelphia over the killing of Walter Wallace Jr. by police, aldermen in Chicago are weighing a plan to address the issue of cops responding to mental health crises.

A pilot program included in the proposed 2021 city budget would add a “co-responder” to some 911 calls when mental health is involved. Advocates of the model have said that could save lives — like that of Wallace, a Black man who had struggled with mental health issues and who was fatally shot by police.

Those who support defunding police departments point to Wallace’s death as the latest example of officers being ill-equipped to handle 911 calls when mental illness is involved.

Few details of the city’s co-responder plan have been worked out, but a group of progressive aldermen butted heads with Supt. David Brown over a major part of it: if officers should be included when responding to such calls.

While Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Brown agree police officers respond to situations that would be better served by mental health professionals, the new city program would keep the Police Department in charge of the response.

As the City Council debated the $1.7 billion police budget Thursday, many aldermen expressed optimism that Brown seemed receptive to the idea police officers are asked to handle too many of society’s problems.

“Policing has become the social service of last resort,” Brown said. “We can’t not answer a 911 call, regardless of what the incident or issue is, and so until and unless we create a capacity in other areas of government, we have to and we’re actually sworn and obligated to answer your call.”

According to budget documents released by the Lightfoot administration, the pilot program will be supported with an “initial investment of $1.3 million” and calls for health professionals and crisis intervention-trained police officers to co-respond to “certain 911 calls with a mental health component.”

“There are no magic wands to wave, no snapping of fingers or catchy slogans. And whatever course we take must be tested on the streets of Chicago and must be built to address our urban realities and not those of some other city that does not reflect our diversity, our history or our current reality,” Lightfoot said during a budget address last week.

During the meeting, police officials said the pilot program would be planned and implemented in a limited fashion in select police districts in 2021.

Cmdr. Antoinette Ursitti, who heads the Crisis Intervention unit for the department, said the city is looking at similar plans in Houston and Dallas as a model for its program, which would use a three-pronged approach.

“The first is embedding a mental health professional into the 911 call center” which could allow for a resolution to the problem over the phone “without having to dispatch resources when it’s not appropriate,” she said.

If the call requires a response, one of the 3,100 Chicago officers who have completed crisis intervention training would be dispatched alongside a mental health professional or paramedic.

Lastly, the program could connect an individual whom requires hospitalization to resources when they are discharged.

But when asked further questions about how mental health professionals would arrive on the scene or whether squad cars would be used, Ursitti said more details would be worked out during a community engagement process.

That frustrated Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), who — with other aldermen — has proposed creating a network of mental health professionals who would respond to 911 emergencies for mental health trauma without armed officers. Her plan is based on a similar program in Eugene, Oregon.

Rodriguez Sanchez’s ordinance doesn’t set a dollar amount to support the program, but it calls for funding to be taken from the Police Department’s budget, including overtime spending, and reallocated to the Department of Public Health.

“You have an idea of what you want to do, but there is no plan of how this is going to actually happen,” she said.

The 18-member Progressive Caucus held a press conference ahead of the hearing and threw their support behind Rodriguez Sanchez’s ordinance.

“We have a responsibility to our people to redefine what public safety is,” the northwest side alderman said. “People who are experiencing a mental health crisis, for example, are not safe, particularly if you send police. They’re more likely to be shot by the police than the average person.”

Caucus Chair Ald. Sophia King (4th) said the non-law enforcement model could be a “win-win” for residents and the city’s bottom line, saying almost 50 percent of the calls police officers respond to are for non-violent offenses that have to do with social services.

“It would also free up our police to do what they were trained to do and what they’re comfortable doing,” she said.

During the hearing, Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) said having mental health professionals respond instead of officers would save lives.

“I’m a proponent of having a mental health professional respond to mental health emergencies,” she said. “That would take that off the plate of the police officers, and it would save lives. It would actually save lives.”

Brown argued police officers are needed in a co-responder model to provide safety.

“The model is to mitigate officers from having to be the front line of a mental health response, but again there is a safety net in our co-responding model, where there might be physicality where we just want to make sure everyone’s safe,” he said.

Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), a caucus member and key ally of Lightfoot, told Brown he wants to see a plan created soon.

“Some of my colleagues are going to talk about the mental health responder pilot program,” Waguespack said. “But, I want to make sure that you know I support the need for you to craft a plan immediately to kick this off.”

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