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Jennifer Garross

Since joining the program, social worker Jennifer Garross says she has not faced a situation in which she felt her safety depended on a police officer’s presence “but I can think of situations that could arise that I would.”

Chip Mitchell

A glimpse inside mental health crisis response teams as Chicago creates versions without cops

In another life, Jennifer Garross says, she might have been a good cop.

“I thrive on having to think on my feet,” she said.

But her sense of empathy led her into social work about 25 years ago and, specifically, into helping people through mental health crises, she said.

“Having to, in the moment, help them de-escalate and get connected to the services that they need, I just love that,” Garross said.

Garross came from Dallas to work on two teams Chicago launched last fall — each has a van and each consists of a social worker, a paramedic and a police officer. The program aims to curtail arrests and unnecessary hospitalizations after 911 calls about mental health crises.

Soon, city officials say they will expand the program to include teams that have no cops.

Six months into handling 911 calls, Garross says it is going well and predicts it will be a boon not only to the folks experiencing the crises but to the public as a whole.

“It’s a win-win for everybody because the taxpayers pay for the jails and for uninsured people in the hospitals,” Garross said.

A day’s work

Garross sat down with WBEZ last month after finishing a shift on a crisis response team assigned to some North Side neighborhoods.

In the morning, she said, she and her teammates were headed to a roll call at a police station when they spotted a man who seemed to have passed out in a grassy area. He said he was just sleeping and declined help.

Later the team followed police to a call about a woman who had disrobed in public. She did not want help either.

“She pulled her pants up and went on her way,” Garross said.

Then came calls from dispatchers.

One sent the team to a residential building for folks with chronic mental illnesses.

“There was a gentleman that they felt needed to go to the hospital because he was expressing suicidal ideations,” Garross said.

But the man did not want to go to the hospital, she said.

Until recently, the city did not have many options for responding to someone like him.

“Unfortunately, the police would have to handle that, if he became aggressive,” Garross said.

Now it was Garross — a social worker with years of experience handling mental health crises — sent by the city to talk it out with the man.

“It went fine,” Garross said. “When the ambulance showed up, he walked out with them.”

Starting small

These two teams are running on just one shift, just on weekdays, and just in five of the city’s 77 community areas.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration says it is important to assess the program, dubbed Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement (CARE), before scaling it up.

“I think we’re off to a very, very strong start,” Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, told a City Council committee last month. “This is a program we’re really excited about.”

But some mental-health care advocates say the rollout is going too slowly. They are also worried about the police involvement.

“The culture of policing has proven that its methods for de-escalation and intervention are not effective and often end with the loss of life in Black and brown communities,” Latesha Newson, a board member of the Illinois chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said in a news conference last month. “Quintonio LeGrier, Laquan McDonald, Philip Coleman, James Anderson, Raul Barriera, Bettie Jones — all lives unjustly lost at the hands of Chicago police in their attempts to intervene during mental health crises.”

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, 33rd Ward, has pushed for setting up crisis response teams without police.

“A majority of calls are not going to involve police intervention but we’ve prioritized that model,” Rodriguez-Sanchez told council colleagues during a hearing last month. “I’m concerned about resources and urgency on the model that’s using police.”

But the Lightfoot administration says including cops on the crisis teams expands the types of calls they can handle. Without the police, officials say, it would not be safe to dispatch personnel to situations known to involve a weapon or an attack.

Plans for expansion

Since September, when their operations began, the two teams that include officers have carried out more than 160 mental health responses without a single arrest or use of force, according to the Health Department.

Garross, the social worker, says including the police is a good idea in a city with so much violence.

“The officers that we work with, once they’ve made the scene safe — just made sure that everything is OK — we go in and do our job,” Garross said. “They don’t interfere.”

Since joining CARE, Garross said she has not faced a situation in which she felt her safety depended on the team’s cop.

“But I can think of situations that could arise that I would,” she said. “When I was in Dallas, there were several situations [in which] I was glad that we had an officer there because safety can be jeopardized.”

The circumstances described in the 911 call may not be what the responders face when they arrive, Garross said.

City officials say they have no plans to pull police from the program.

But they say they are nearly ready to try out an “alternate response” team that includes the social worker and paramedic without the cop.

After a delay caused by the omicron surge, they say, that team awaits Illinois Department of Public Health approval of the protocols for routing the 911 calls.

IDPH spokesperson Mike Claffey did not answer how much time that approval could take. “They are going through the normal process of review,” he wrote.

If IDPH signs off, Chicago officials say, it will take about two weeks to train call takers and dispatchers at the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

This summer, city officials say, the program will expand further with the creation of another non-police team. That one will focus on crises tied to substance abuse and consist of a paramedic and a peer recovery professional.

Following up with services

During Garross’s North Side shift, dispatchers also sent her team to a woman with bipolar disorder.

“They thought we could help out,” Garross said, “but she was having physical complaints.”

The woman went to the hospital for those issues but, Garross said, “because she has the bipolar diagnosis, I was able to get her phone number and talked with her about maybe following up with her tomorrow.”

“She was agreeable to that,” Garross said. “So we’ll give her a call tomorrow and see if we can stop by.”

Arwady, the public health chief, told the City Council members that this follow-up is another thing that distinguishes the CARE teams from police-only responses.

“It is not just what happens on the scene, but what happens afterwards,” Arwady said. “The post-response is about making sure that we are linking residents to appropriate community-based services that address the underlying needs that contributed to that crisis in the first place.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1. Contact him at cmitchell@wbez.org.

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