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Cops Should Not Respond To Mental Health Emergencies, Experts Say As City Weighs Ordinance

Treatment Not Trauma would enable the city to handle mental health emergencies without police officers. Similar programs have been successful in other cities, officials said during a Monday hearing.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) reacts at a City Council meeting on March 15, 2023.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — National experts who have overseen successful mental health emergency programs urged Chicago to push forward a long-stalled proposal to divert such calls away from police.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) introduced her “Treatment Not Trauma” ordinance two years ago. Based in part on Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, the alderwoman’s plan would create a network of professionals to respond to mental health emergencies without armed police officers and would reopen 14 currently closed city-run mental health centers.

That ordinance stalled in committee in 2021 as the city launched a pilot program to de-escalate mental health crises, which progressive alderpeople criticized for still using armed police officers.

Now the chair of the City Council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations, Rodriguez-Sanchez invited experts from alternative policing and mental health initiatives to lay out how similar programs without cops could work in Chicago.

Their testimony during Monday’s hearing is an effort to get parts of Treatment Not Trauma included in the city’s 2024 budget, Rodriguez-Sanchez said. 

Veteran and freshman alderpeople were broadly supportive of the idea during Monday’s subject matter hearing on the topic, probing for more details on the potential funding and logistics to offer mental health services without police involvement.

“Right now, we have a huge possibility to create something that is informed by what is already been done across the country, but that also is particular to the needs of our city. We have the expertise to do that,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) during a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023.

How Do Other Cities Handle Mental Health Emergencies?

Albuquerque Community Safety was launched after the 2020 murder of George Floyd. The city reallocated millions of dollars towards the program amid calls to defund the police, said Mariela Ruiz-Angel, the city’s community safety director.

Albuquerque, New Mexico’s program works as the third branch to the city’s existing public safety departments, and responds to 911 calls for mental health, substance use and homelessness issues with a staff of unarmed civilians, Ruiz-Angel said.

“Three months, and all it took was a couple of calls for [the police] to see that we could handle a situation without them that they would typically go to. And that’s all it took,” Ruiz-Angel said.

Teams have responded to 14,418 calls this year. About 60 percent of those were diverted away from police, she said. 

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all [solution], I think it’s figuring out what you need most,” Ruiz-Angel said. “Figuring out how to make sure your police, your fire [departments] are involved and making sure your communities are involved, and then really taking it just day by day and step by step. But don’t let the planning hinder you from even moving forward.”

Pay for the Albuquerque positions are also comparable to the city’s fire and police department positions, which makes the jobs attractive to people who want to work in social work, she said. 

“I’ve actually had people who worked as paramedics, I do have ex-firefighters, I do have ex-police officers, but I also got teachers who went to school for social work,” she said.

Credit: Screen Capture
Albuquerque Community Safety Director Mariela Ruiz-Angel explains the volume of calls her teams have fielded to date in 2023.

Portland, Oregon, launched Portland Street Response program in 2021 as an unarmed 911 response within Portland Fire & Rescue to help people experiencing mental and behavioral health crises, said Mike Frome, Portland Police bureau deputy chief.

The program started with an unarmed team of an EMT, a licensed mental health therapist and a community health worker using two vehicles to help people in the Lents area of Portland. It has grown to serve the entire city as of last year, Frome said.

Portland Street Response’s teams handled around 8,600 calls in 2022, Frome said. Teams fielded just over 2,000 calls in the first quarter of this year, 98 percent of which otherwise would have been handled by police, he said. 

“This allowed me to have my officers focus on other calls where there is a more obvious criminal nexus,” Frome said. “[Portland Street Response’s teams] can handle it all on their own without needing fire, medical or police [help].” 

Since its launch, Portland Street Response has asked police to assist on calls 98 times. Portland police have asked the mental health teams to help them 212 times, Frome said.

“Portland Street Response and the police are capable of reaching out to each other when they recognize the need for assistance with each other,” Frome said. 

Credit: City of Chicago
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.

How Does Chicago’s Existing Program Work?

Chicago’s Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement teams include a plainclothes police officer trained in crisis intervention, a paramedic and a mental health professional. It started in two main areas in 2021 and has added more teams to the Southwest and West sides, and Downtown area.

Responders have fielded more than 1,000 calls without any reports of arrests or injuries to first responders or patients, said Matt Richards, deputy commissioner of behavioral health with the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

Ald. Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth (48th) asked if the current pilot should be replaced by a “civilian-led model” that wouldn’t include a police officer as part of the crisis intervention team. 

Whether or not to have a police officer involved moving forward would be dictated by the mayor and City Council, Richards said.

“We’re certainly aware that there are different models, but I think as folks have elevated in the hearing today, we’re very, as a health department, understanding that these are health events and they need to be met by a health response. And we very much agree with that point,” Richards said.

The safety of civilian crisis intervention teams in Portland largely has not been an issue, Frome said.

“When [Portland Street Response] first came into the picture, there was a concern on the police side they would be unsafe, that they might be injured. We haven’t seen this play out. And from testimony earlier today, it sounds like you’re not seeing it in your pilot either,” Frome said.

Credit: Provided by the Collaborative for Community Wellness
Wards with high rates of behavioral health 911 calls tend to be concentrated in areas of the city where CDPH mental health centers have been closed.

Now What?

Treatment Not Trauma would create a “community care worker corps” focused on building trust in underserved communities, according to a white paper from Collaborative for Community Wellness, the coalition that designed the program.

These jobs would have salaries comparable to a police officer’s and be supported by fully funded, city-run mental health centers featuring mental health crisis call lines and non-police crisis response teams.

It helps tackle the issue of providing specialized mental health support and ease “widespread frustration” among officers “who feel that they are required to respond to social and medical problems for which they are not trained,” the paper states.

During the last election, three wards on the South and Northwest sides resoundingly backed a referendum to expand mental health care in the city.

The focus is on prevention, support during crises and follow-up care to prevent future emergencies, said Dr. Arturo Carrillo of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, who serves on the mayor’s transition team.

“[Our] study found that despite the high demand for mental health support, limited availability of free services impeded community residents from addressing their mental health needs,”

Mayor Johnson supported Treatment Not Trauma during the campaign and pledged to reopen 14 publicly-run mental health care centers in the city. He reiterated his support Saturday during an event in Woodlawn, the Tribune reported.

” … I am really excited to start partnering with Mayor Brandon Johnson and this administration to create something that we are all going to be proud of and that is going to help us care for people in the way that people need to be cared for,” Rodriguez-Sanchez said Monday.

Ruiz-Angel urged Chicago officials to not spend too much time deliberating the issue.

“You have to move when the stars align. You have to slowly, and I’m not saying jump in with both feet, but figure out how you get to that next level,” Ruiz-Angel said.

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