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Chicago Rolls Out Mental Health Emergency Teams To Reduce Police Encounters With People In Crisis

The Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement program will create teams focused on de-escalating an emergency and providing follow-up treatment.

The Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement teams will drive in white vans, which officials said were designed to not look like conventional law enforcement or public safety vehicles to be more approachable.
City of Chicago
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CHICAGO — The city’s 911 call center is now being staffed with a mental health professional as part of an effort to stop relying solely on police to respond to Chicagoans experiencing mental health emergencies.

The Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement program, or CARE, started on a limited basis this week, focusing on two parts of the city with the highest number of mental health emergency calls. One team of responders will work in Uptown, North Center and Lakeview, and the second will service Auburn Gresham and Chatham.

Those teams include a police officer trained in crisis intervention, a paramedic and a mental health professional. The police officer will be in plainclothes, and the teams respond to calls in a white van designed not to look like police cruisers or ambulances. The vans will be marked with a logo, but it’s still being developed.

Two more teams will start later this year, and both will work without officers.

The pilot was created through the 2021 budget process with an initial $3.5 million investment.

Progressive aldermen led by Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) pushed the city to stop using armed first responders in mental health emergencies and invest in mental health response teams in response to calls for cities to defund police departments last year. Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially balked at the idea, instead favoring a limited co-responder model that included police officers.

Eventually, Lightfoot approved of the hybrid pilot program to test both models.

Officials with Lightfoot’s office and the Chicago Department of Public Health detailed the program during a hearing of the Committee on Health and Human Relations on Wednesday. North Side alderman also hosted a webinar to introduce it to residents.

“These are calls that as of right now are responded to by our police, but they may arguably take the skills that go beyond what our average officer has to offer,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd).

The first phase of the two-year pilot, which began Monday, will roll out slowly, a Lightfoot spokesperson said in a statement.

“In order to ensure the safety of staff and individuals in need of assistance, the launch of this team will be phased over the next three weeks and is starting with a focus on getting oriented in the field, community outreach, and building relationships with the community members whom this program is intended to serve,” the statement read.

Chicago police responded to more than 41,000 calls “with a mental health component” in 2019, according to documents the department provided in budget hearings last fall. The Fire Department responded to another 27,000 mental health calls in 2019, and 13,000 calls through the first half of 2020, data shows.

CARE has three prongs: the pre-response, alternate response and post-response.

In the pre-response, the mental health professional at the city’s 911 center will assess whether an emergency call can be resolved over the phone. The person taking the call will coordinate the response team if it is needed. 

If the call requires a dispatch, one of three teams will be sent. In the first phase, teams will include a police officer, paramedic and a mental health professional. The two teams set to begin later this year will partner a paramedic with a mental health professional or a drug recovery specialist in Humboldt Park, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, West Englewood, West Edison, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn and Gage Park.

The responders will try to coordinate follow-up care for the individual experiencing a crisis through community-based services, including three geographically based “alternate dropoff sites,” rather than taking that person to an emergency room. The city hopes to launch those dropoff sites by the end of 2021, said Alex Heaton, a public safety policy adviser for the Mayor’s Office.

Rodriguez and Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said the city should emphasize its own mental health clinics as alternative options for individuals rather than private or nonprofit community clinics the city is partnering with for the program.

“Let’s keep moving in that direction to really make sure that we are defending the public mental health clinics that exist, that we’re growing and expanding the services that they offer, and that they are playing an integral role in this non-law enforcement mental health first responder program,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

Matt Richards, deputy commission for behavioral health at the health department, said people experiencing immediate trauma may require an emergency room visit, but the goal is to provide other resources better situated to serve individual needs, including drug rehab clinics and inpatient and outpatient mental health clinics.

Responders will offer the city’s clinics as an option to people in crisis, Richards said, but private groups will expand their choices.

“I’m very committed to our [health department] clinics being a priority resource here. I just don’t feel comfortable telling a patient that there’s a default, because we are guided by the patient’s choice,” he said. 

Rodriguez pushed for the city to scrap the blended pilot and immediately test drive a system that does not use police. She also accused the administration of co-opting what she, other members of the Progressive Caucus and other community leaders had long advocated for without giving them credit.

“I really want to see a model that is going to move away completely from police response and is going to meet the needs of the people in a way that is compassionate,” she said. “When we first proposed this, we were told ‘no.’ … But now I see that this is the direction in which you are moving, so I am glad, but also want to give credit to the people who pushed for this to happen.”

Multiple aldermen, including Matt Martin (47th) and Maria Hadden (49th) urged the city to quickly expand the pilot to other areas. Richards didn’t rule that out but said organizers would need at least six months of data to figure out how best to build on the program.

Heaton said the city will create a public dashboard to track metrics in the pilot and will provide quarterly updates to aldermen.

Block Club’s Jake Wittich contributed.

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