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Oak Lawn police will have online help when responding to mental health calls

Program started by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart will allow officers to contact health professionals online when dealing with people in mental health crises.

Sheriff Tom Dart on Wednesday announced his department will give officers in south suburban Oak Lawn access to online help when responding to mental health emergencies.
Sheriff Tom Dart on Wednesday announced his department will give officers in south suburban Oak Lawn access to online help when responding to mental health emergencies.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Oak Lawn police officers arriving at the scene of a mental health emergency now are able to quickly reach out online to get help.

The south suburban department is the first to plug into Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program, which outfits officers with computer tablets that they can use to set up online sessions with mental health professionals to help defuse potentially dangerous situations.

“I was really surprised how fast it was,” Oak Lawn Police Chief Daniel Vittorio said Wednesday. “You call the counselor, set up a Zoom session, and it’s set up in a matter of seconds.”

A supervisor on every shift will have an iPad to use, allowing them to link someone in distress to an on-call civilian mental health worker, Vittorio said. Since beginning a pilot program a few weeks ago, officers have reached out for online help a dozen times.

Sheriff’s officers have used online co-responders 70 times since the program was launched late last year. Dart said the online sessions deescalate confrontations, and at far lower cost than staffing a trained mental health worker to accompany officers on calls in person.

“We go up there, we knock on the door ... we ask if they would rather go this other route, literally the tablet is handed to them. There’s a mental health professional on the other end and they talk everybody through it,” Dart said. “Nine times out of 10, the person walks their way to an ambulance and goes and gets the treatment they need, (with) virtually no involvement with the criminal justice system.”

Sheriff’s officers responded to 1,208 calls for service involving mental health issues last year and are on pace to exceed 1,800 such calls this year.

The program uses a handful of mental health workers already on staff with the sheriff’s department, spokesman Matt Walberg said, and can be scaled up if other area departments also want access to the online counselors.