Chicago's mental health 'crisis': Is reform of police enough?

Following a series of shootings by Chicago police of people suffering with mental illness, the mayor has demanded changes to the way police responded to mental health crises.

Joshua Lott/Reuters/File
Janet Cooksey (l.) is embraced as she attends the funeral for her son Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago, Illinois, January 9. The US Department of Justice is investigating the city police department over its use of deadly force, especially against minorities. The shooting deaths of two black people – college student Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor Bettie Jones, a grandmother of 10, by a police officer late last month have increased tensions.

The Chicago Police Department will soon overhaul its training program for officers responding to mental-health crisis situations, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on Friday.

The changes are being instituted in response to a series of high-profile police shootings of people suffering with mental health problems. While the changes have been welcomed by those championing the rights of mental illness sufferers, questions remain over what other measures need to be instituted outside of the police force.

In recent years, police officers in many cities across the United States have found themselves in the position of becoming first responders for the mentally ill. By one estimate, US jails hold 10 times as many people struggling with mental illness as mental institutions. Increasingly communities have been looking for ways to divert people in need of help from the penal system to proper supports, efforts justice and mental health experts alike say will better serve people in need while reducing costs.

Chicago's decision to amplify such efforts comes on the heels of tragedy. In late December, a Chicago police officer fatally shot 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and his neighbor, Bettie Jones, after responding to a 911 call. Mr. LeGrier is believed to have been suffering from mental illness. It is not clear whether the officer was aware of LeGrier's emotional issues at the time of the call but the incident renewed questions about the efficacy of the city's existing crisis intervention strategies.

"We must also make real changes within our police department today, and it is clear changes are needed to how officers respond to mental health crises," Mayor Emanuel said in the aftermath. 

He went on to direct the interim police superintendent "to review the Crisis Intervention Team training, around how officers respond to mental health crisis calls," reported the Chicago Tribune.

“We applaud the mayor for expanding and prioritizing the program,” executive director of Chicago’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Alexa James, told The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s a terrific program.”

NAMI has been involved in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) with Chicago police for 11 years and the city currently has 1,890 CIT-trained police officers.

With the new program, that number will jump to 2,800 in 2016, set to rise again in subsequent years. In addition, all officers will now undergo a mandatory two-day course on de-escalation and mental health awareness.

“Making sure that Chicago’s first responders have the right training, practice, and preparations to de-escalate crisis situations safely and effectively is one of the most essential things that we can do to keep every Chicagoan safe,” Emanuel said in a press release. 

“The efforts we are announcing today are part of the City’s commitment to improving its emergency response training, and ensuring that those in need of mental health services are getting the care they need most.”

But are they getting all the care they need? Ms. James of NAMI contends that they are not.

“We are in a mental health crisis in our city and state,” James tells the Monitor. “What we do is we criminalize people with mental illness.”

Certainly, having more CIT-trained officers on the street, and improving the way dispatchers direct these officers to calls involving mental health crises, will help, reducing injuries to those with mental illness, as well as to the responding officers.

But “there has been dysfunction in the way in which people in crisis have been getting help,” says James, talking of the wider picture.

“We need to invest so that people aren’t getting to the stage of needing to call a police officer for mental health issues.”

In Los Angeles, authorities have taken things a step further than Chicago, actually deploying mental health clinicians alongside beat cops. A handful of other US cities have similar programs on a smaller scale.

L.A.'s program has been credited with reducing costs associated with 911 calls, connecting thousands of individuals with counseling and support, reducing incidences of force used on individuals with mental illness, and alleviating the burden on overcrowded emergency rooms and the criminal justice system, as The Monitor has previously reported.

The changes to Chicago’s law enforcement practices are part of a soul-searching currently sweeping the nation after a spate of highly publicized shootings by police.

Questions are being asked not just of how police forces need to change, but what exactly people should expect of their police in the first place.

“Police officers fight crime,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, April 2015. “Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference.”

So, with respect to Chicago, there is much to ponder, much room for improvement, but, as James tells the Monitor, “these are very positive steps forward.”

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