Five years after closing six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is stepping up crisis intervention training for Chicago Police officers and 911 operators to improve the city’s response to emergencies involving people suffering from mental illness.
The police shootings of Laquan McDonald in October 2014 and Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones in December 2015 are only the most recent examples of incidents where deadly consequences might have been avoided if police officers and 911 operators had been better trained, said Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago.
A 911 dispatcher is facing disciplinary action for hanging up on LeGrier and failing to dispatch police in response to the young man’s pleas for help.
When Chicago Police officers finally did respond, they shot and killed the bat-wielding LeGrier and accidentally killed his neighbor, Bettie Jones.
“The response to the call was just devastating and poor, and demonstrates a desperate need for retraining of OEMC dispatchers,” James said Thursday, referring to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.
“If 911 was better equipped and had a system in place where they could decipher somebody experiencing a crisis, it would have been different. . . . If they had labeled that call a mental health crisis instead of a domestic, the outcome might have been different.”
Emanuel said he made it clear on the day he returned to Chicago after cutting short a family vacation to Cuba that re-training was in the works for both police officers and 911 dispatchers.
“This highlights a weakness in the system because they’re the first person anybody is going to be calling,” the mayor said of 911 dispatchers.
“We have to get to a place across the board — from police, fire, 911 dispatchers, public health — where we’re dealing with mental health illness as a mental health illness issue not as a criminal issue. And that’s what I want as a goal in the training.”
Emanuel’s first city budget consolidated the city’s mental health clinics from 12 to six. State funding cutbacks subsequently stifled crisis intervention training with a proven track record for decreasing injuries to police officers and individuals in crisis, reducing arrest rates and increasing referrals to mental health treatment.
But the Laquan McDonald shooting, which triggered a federal civil rights investigation, has prompted the mayor to do an about-face when it comes to the issue of how Chicago’s first responders can best serve people suffering from mental illness.
Emanuel is now embracing reforms recommended by a steering committee composed of city officials, service providers and mental health experts. Among the recommendations:
- A 50 percent increase in crisis intervention training for police officers — from 1,890 to 2,800 officers and at least one in every district on every watch. That will get the Chicago Police Department close to the “national best practice” of having 25 percent of the police force trained, James said.
- Full Crisis Intervention Training certification for all field training officers and newly promoted officers.
- Eight hours of in-service training on mental health awareness for all Chicago Police officers. It will be part of the 16 hours of training on de-escalation tactics announced by the mayor after the LeGrier and Jones shootings.
- Improved training for all 911 operators and dispatchers to help identify situations requiring Crisis Intervention Training tactics and dispatch accordingly. Dispatchers and operators will also get annual training to reinforce what they learn.
The city also plans to improve data collection on mental health incidents and “work with mental health experts and community partners to explore new models for improving access to mental health services” when individuals interact with police and other first responders.
Amy Watson, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams College of Social Work, said the plan unveiled Thursday is a “big turnaround” for a mayor pilloried for his mental health cutbacks.
“It really is a problem that has to be on his radar right now. If it isn’t, there will continue to be tragedies we might otherwise have prevented. We also have the Department of Justice in town. They’re going to be looking at what the city is doing to respond to this,” she said.
“It’s an indication that he’s now really paying attention to this and is starting to move ahead on things that have been needed for some time.”
Still, Watson argued that much more needs to be done to make certain that there are options for people suffering from mental health issues besides “the emergency room or the jail.”
“As it stands now, officers bring people to the emergency department for an assessment. Often, people are not admitted. They’re released. And the handoff to community mental health services breaks down. We don’t have enough of them,” Watson said.
“People will often get an appointment with a provider in a few weeks or a few months. With someone in crisis, that’s often not soon enough. They’re not that likely to make the appointment,” she said. “We need to fill in that gap so there can be a warm hand-off to services.”
Emanuel was ready and waiting with one of his patented lists when asked whether the problems encountered by Chicago’s first responders might have been exacerbated by his decision to consolidate mental health clinics.
“That’s not actually accurate. Of the 12, six of ‘em are with federally qualified entities. No. 2, we’ve actually, for the first time ever, put resources towards psychiatric care, which the city never did and which the advocates asked for,” he said.
“And No. 3, when I came into office, the mental health system for the city of Chicago had lost 90 percent of its funding from the state because of how poorly it was managed.”
Last year, Chicago’s 911 emergency system handled 5 million calls, half of them requiring a police or fire response. Only 24,000 of those calls had a mental health issue flagged for the call taker.
“The issue for 911 is, how do we help a call taker understand an issue that’s pretty rare,” said a top mayoral aide, who asked to not be named.