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Treating mentally ill as criminals destroys lives, wastes money

Video released by City of Chicago of Philip Coleman being dragged from his jail cell.

“We don’t do hospitals. We do jail.”

That, we are told, is what a Chicago police sergeant said in 2012 when the parents of man who was exhibiting bizarre and aggressive behavior asked the police to take their son to a hospital.

The 38-year-old man, Philip Coleman, later was repeatedly zapped with a Taser and dragged from his jail cell while handcuffed. He died at a hospital after being given a shot of an anti-psychotic drug.

Police departments across the nation are wising up to better ways to handle such mentally disturbed people like Coleman. Dragging them off to jail is unjust and costly. Under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Chicago has taken steps in the right direction, but could do more.


On Monday, the City Council approved a $4.95 million settlement to Coleman’s family. The Council also approved a $1.5 million settlement to the family of a man, Justin Cook, who died in police custody in 2014 after being stopped for a traffic violation. After he was handcuffed, Cook suffered an asthma attack and asked the officers — to no avail — for the inhaler he had in his pants pocket.

Both financial settlements, according to the Better Government Association, come on top of more than $500 million the city has paid out since 2004 to settle police misconduct cases.

In January, Emanuel announced a list of reforms aimed at reducing police misconduct, including improvements in dealing specifically with mentally disturbed people. The city is requiring full CIT certification for all police field training officers and new promotional classes; implementing an eight-hour, in-service training session on mental health awareness for all police officers; improving training for 911 operators and dispatchers; improving data collection to help guide the city’s response, and working on ways to faster tap mental health services. On Monday, the city said all patrol officers soon will carry Tasers — a smarter way to go than a gun in many situations — and that more than 450 body cameras recently were shipped to Chicago.

Other efforts are underway as well. A community triage center to handle cases such as Coleman’s is being developed jointly by the Cook County Justice Advisory Council, the Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the city. It is scheduled to open later this year in Roseland. And the Police Department and the Chicago Department of Public Health have launched a pilot program with the Human Resources Development Institute at St. Bernard Hospital in Englewood under which people brought in by police are connected to appropriate mental health services.

But without minimizing the value of these measures, they are not enough.

According to the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, the risk nationally of being killed during an encounter with police is 16 times higher for individuals with untreated mental illness than for other civilians. But better cop training can make a huge difference — for the officer as well. The National Alliance on Mental Health, which offers CIT training to police, says the training reduces injuries by 80 percent to officers responding to mental health crisis calls.

The eight hours of mental health awareness training Chicago now provides police officers is better than nothing, but falls far short of the 40 hours of CIT training recommended by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. Eighty-five percent of the Cook County sheriff’s police, for example, have had the 40-hour training.

Our city’s police also need more places — other than a jail cell — to bring people who are suffering a mental health breakdown and may be a risk to themselves or others. Each Chicago police district has a designated mental treatment center for adults and juveniles. But, because of budget cuts in recent years, both the city and the state have closed mental health facilities.

Too often, mentally ill people just wind up behind bars. About a third of all inmates at Cook County Jail self-report that they have mental health issues, according to Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart’s office. Nationally, according to federal estimates, one in four people people in jail or prison suffers from a mental illness.

Chicago would do well to look at San Antonio and its surrounding Bexar County, which have improved the local mental health treatment system — better training and more community-based service centers — to the point that once-crowded jails are under capacity and the city has saved $50 million over five years. Police who were waiting up to 14 hours to oversee the transfer of a mental health patient to a hospital now are back on the street much more quickly. According to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a $150,000 investment in CIT training for police saved Louisville more than $1 million in criminal justice and other costs.

In 2006, in a tragic case that made national headlines, the Chicago Police arrested a mentally disturbed woman at Midway Airport and dumped her off in a high crime neighborhood, where she was sexually assaulted before falling or being pushed from a tall building. On Monday, Ald. Edward Burke recalled that case and wondered what had happened to police practice reforms put in place at that time. Had Chicago learned nothing?

“The police bureaucracy failed this young woman,” Burke said, “and the police bureaucracy failed” Coleman.

Lives are lost. Families are devastated. And the City of Chicago pays — now or later.

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