Should mental health experts, not police, staff some 911 calls?

Should mental health experts, not police, staff some 911 calls?
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A coalition of activists aims to add a symbolic question to the November ballot about funding non-police responses to 911 calls about mental health crises.

The referendum would ask if Chicago should reopen all the closed mental health clinics that were operated by the public health department, as well as whether the city should support a team of mental health professionals to be dispatched to mental health emergency calls instead of police. Residents in the 6th, 20th and 33rd wards would receive the question, which is nonbinding, on their ballots.

Advocates stood outside the Chicago Board of Elections in a news conference Monday before filing their ballot measure petitions, which were sitting in a column of rain-soaked boxes that read “TREATMENT NOT TRAUMA.”

Diane Adams, a leader with Southside Together Organizing for Power, said she fell into a crushing depression when her son died decades ago. The symptoms worsened until she made a suicide attempt, and it was only years later that she began to heal with the help of a therapist.

“I was able to get my life back,” Adams said while noting that others in Chicago deserve that same chance.

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The city already operates a Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement — or CARE — pilot program that launched last fall under Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. CARE started off using a co-responder model, so police officers have still been involved in the pilot that operated in Lakeview and Uptown and in the Auburn Gresham and Chatham neighborhoods.

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Last month, the city expanded the pilot program with a third team — its first operating without a police officer. That team responds to calls in the Southwest Side neighborhoods of Chicago Lawn, Gage Park, West Elsdon and West Lawn.

As for the mental health clinics, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of them about a decade ago, and Lightfoot has not come out in support of reopening them. She has instead opted for myriad public-private partnerships to support clinics not operated by the city.

While advocates for a non-police model for some 911 calls say officers are not best equipped to de-escalate those suffering mental health crises and that a police presence might antagonize them, others say such situations are volatile and that not having law enforcement present could be dangerous.

Ald. Rosanna Rodriguez Sanchez, who represents the 33rd Ward, where voters would be asked the question, said she recently visited Denver to talk about their Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program that sends teams of mental health professionals — and no police — to deal with nonviolent calls. She said she believes a non-police response protects everyone, including officers.

“Right now the only tool we have funded is police, and this puts people at risk,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “It puts communities at risk and even the officers, it puts them at risk. So whoever is trying to send police to deal with these things doesn’t care about even the well-being of those officers.”

Jhoanna Maldonado, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, said she’s seen firsthand that people with access to mental health support can unwind and heal from a crisis.

“It makes a world of a difference,” Maldonado said. “This is the change we need in our city. Let us stop blaming one another for the violence deaths and unarmed shootings of those in mental health crisis and let’s lift up solutions, real solutions, that we know work. That is justice.”

ayin@chicagotribune.com

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