CPD’s ongoing battle with mental health calls

In 2019, Chicago Police Department responded to 51,457 mental health calls. (Colin Boyle/MEDILL)

By Emine Yücel
Medill Reports

CHICAGO — In September 1987, answering a 911 call, Memphis police officers found a man stabbing himself more than 100 times with a butcher knife at LeMoyne Gardens, a public housing project. When police approached, they said, the man swung the knife towards them and they shot and killed him. His name was Joseph DeWayne Robinson.

Following the incident that killed Robinson and created a backlash in Memphis, the city’s police department partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to create a unit called a crisis intervention team, or CIT, designed to train police to respond thoughtfully and effectively when dealing with mentally ill individuals.

What began in Memphis moved to Chicago 15 years ago. Since then, the National Alliance has been working with the Chicago Police Department as police struggle to cope with growing numbers of residents who experience mental health problems. Official statistics indicate that police responded to 51,457 mental health calls in 2019, but the number is likely much higher.

“We get so many mental health calls,” said officer Jamesa Jackson, who works in the 4th District. “I’m one of the few trained officers in the area. Sometimes we’ll get more than one mental health call at the same time and, since all trained officers are busy, someone who’s not CIT trained will have to respond to them.”

More than 60% of the mental health calls received in 2019 were answered by officers who had not gone through the 40 hours of specialized training. In fact, three in every four members of the Chicago police force, or about 10,000 officers, lack training in CIT protocols, according to CPD.

With untrained officers, “the experience you’re going to get is a gamble,” said Sarah Sciortino, a former social worker at Thresholds, an agency that provides services for people with serious mental illnesses in Illinois. Jeneane Krischak, who was a manager at Thresholds, agreed. “Their management skills vary based on their personality and personal experience. Some officers you have a great interaction with and with others not so great,” she said.

The consequences for residents and officers alike can be serious. “The risk of being killed while being approached or stopped by law enforcement in the community is 16 times higher for individuals with untreated serious mental illness than for other civilians,” the Treatment Advocacy Center, a non-profit dedicated to eliminating barriers to treatment of mental illnesses, wrote in a 2015 report.

This is partly because there aren’t enough CIT trained officers and partly because the city doesn’t offer adequate mental health care to over 170,000 residents who need treatment but aren’t getting it, according to Arturo Carrillo, a program manager at Saint Anthony Hospital.

“It’s very hard to get mental care, so people are getting sicker and sicker and officers respond when these people are at their worst and are experiencing a crisis,” said Sierra Peterson, NAMI Chicago training manager. “The officers are having a lot asked of them and they’re not trained to do this. It’s not fair to them.”

The system in place relies on crisis intervention training, a 40-hour curriculum completed in five days. CIT is mandatory for officers who have been promoted to sergeant or higher positions. For the rest it’s voluntary.

“In the first half of the week, officers learn about mental health, active listening skills and how to verbally de-escalate someone in crisis,” said Peterson, who has been a CIT trainer since she finished graduate school in 2018. “In the second half of the week, they get to put their skills to the test,” in a series of role-playing activities.

During CIT training, officers are educated on topics including the history of CIT and the signs and symptoms of different conditions. Other themes include mental health in older adults, veterans and autistic individuals, as well as the use of commonly prescribed psychotropic medications.

As a part of the program, NAMI Chicago, the local chapter of the mental health alliance, also hosts two panels. “In the first panel individuals share their own stories dealing with and recovering from mental health conditions,” Peterson said. In the other panel, people who called police while a family member was having a mental health crisis talk about their experiences.

At the completion of the curriculum, trainees are placed in situations where volunteers with an improv background act out crisis situations. Based on what they learned, officers are expected to assess and de-escalate the situation as if they’re on the scene. Later, officers are debriefed by Peterson and a sergeant.

“The sergeant provides information on what they did tactically to keep themselves and everyone else safe,” Peterson said. “I provide clinical feedback. Did you build rapport, use open-ended questions, empathy, etc.?”

Peterson believes that this program is “crucial to making sure that people get connected to mental care instead of being criminalized.” In Peterson’s experience, trained officers are more willing to take someone to the hospital, even if they’re behaving in ways they might otherwise get them arrested.

Yet, barriers remain and encounters do not always go smoothly. Officers are not always accommodating, said Sciortino, who added, “I had to work with police officers fairly frequently and they never wanted to deal with us.”

“They also seem to have the impression that anyone with a mental health issue is overall difficult,” Krischak said. “So, they would always send one of those wagons with the benches in the back. They figured that if somebody was acting up they can just throw them back there and transport them to the hospital.”

Jackson, the police officer, added, “There are bad apples out there who don’t know what they’re doing.” To avoid mistakes, she thinks all CPD officers should be CIT trained.

Dr. Amy Watson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has been studying CIT for the past 20 years, disagrees. She does not favor giving the training to all officers. She said departments in Albuquerque and Portland, Oregon, tried training everyone. It didn’t work well.

“When you train everyone, there’s this assumption that all officers are going to be equally prepared and equally good,” said Watson, who’s also on the board of directors for CIT International, a nonprofit that facilitates understanding and implementation of CIT programs throughout the United States. “But that’s not true. Just like all officers wouldn’t be good SWAT officers. You can train them but that doesn’t necessarily mean they bring what is needed for that job.”

A number of cities, including Portland, Tucson and Salt Lake City, have other mechanisms in place to help with mental health crises. These mechanisms all have one thing in common: mobile crisis units staffed by clinical social workers that reduce the demand on police.

“We have one of the most robust crisis systems,” said Leticia Sainz, program manager at the Portland Crisis System. “We have a mobile team unit that consists of a team of therapists. We have an urgent walk in clinic that is free for anyone in the county. But most importantly, we have our crisis line.”

The 24-hour crisis line is where mental health calls that 911 receives are transferred. “Suicidal clients might go through 911 but after assessment will often be transferred to us without having to call another number,” Sainz said. Once an individual is transferred to the crisis line a mobile team unit can be directed to them if necessary. This decreases the chances of police responding to a mental health crisis they’re not trained to respond.

“Even 100 calls a month is a huge saving for law enforcement resources,” Sainz said. “And of course, it’s better for the community if police are not the resource that is needed in that moment.”

“For the City of Chicago to get better, they need the capability to call a crisis line and get a mobile crisis unit anywhere in the city, regardless of your insurance status,” said Watson, who has helped implement Portland’s crisis system. “Or, if you call 911 and they recognize that it’s a mental health call, they should be able to shift it to a crisis line which has clinicians who can decide who should be the first responder for each specific call.”

Photo at top: In 2019, Chicago Police Department officers responded to 51,457 mental health calls. (Colin Boyle/MEDILL)