Police response to mental health calls has been the subject of intense debate in Chicago amid the national conversation over police abuse, including the high-profile in-custody deaths of people experiencing a mental health crisis. A group of aldermen and community activists want to remove police from non-life-threatening mental health calls altogether by creating a dedicated emergency line that would dispatch a paramedic and a clinician instead. The Chicago Department of Public Health outlined its own idea: a $1.4 million plan to create three-person teams of clinicians, cops and paramedics to respond to mental health calls. The plan, as outlined by department director Dr. Allison Arwady, would be piloted in two police districts next year. While Arwady called the plan a significant shift in crisis response, she faced pushback from aldermen who questioned why law enforcement had to be part of the team at all, considering how often police have used excessive force and how much credibility they’ve lost in some neighborhoods.
Today, 3,100 Chicago officers are trained in crisis intervention, nearly a quarter of the department. Experts said the training by itself is not the answer. Studies have shown that training does help officers change their attitudes, use more de-escalation and connect people to services, but there needs to be a fundamental shift away from letting police alone drive responses. University of Wisconsin Prof. Amy Watson, who has studied police mental-health response, said, “You can train officers, you can get people who are really good at mental health response, but in the end, they are still police.” For now, at least, it seems that the city is poised to keep Chicago police as part of its response to mental health-related calls.