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Police Violence Raises Concern Over Access to Mental Health Services

Laquan McDonald had PCP in his system. Phillip Coleman seems to have had a psychotic episode. And Quintonio LeGrier appears to have been in some sort of mental distress.

Each of these black men was either fatally shot by police or allegedly died in part because of police assaults. According to national statistics, one in four fatal police encounters involve someone with mental illness.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has promised to get the police department more tasers and highlighted police trainings. But he has not directly addressed dwindling mental health services. The mayor shut down half the city’s mental health clinics in 2012 and in recent years, Illinois made deep statewide cuts to mental health.

Which raises the question, even if police are better trained, will they have anyplace to take people for behavioral health help?

Services Are Not Available Where People Need Them

According to WBEZ analysis from June 2015, many of the police districts with the most mental health 911 calls, are also the districts with the fewest mental health services

In response to that analysis, the head of the Chicago Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team, Lori Cooper, said asking people to travel long distances for mental health care, “is kind of like putting them in a wheelchair with flat tires.”

The lack of services often means desperate people purposefully turn to law enforcement for care.  In June of 2015, one staff member at Cook County Jail told WBEZ that a man told him he had purposefully gotten himself arrested for shoplifting. The man said the only place he knew to get medication was in jail. He said he hated being locked up. But he hated being actively psychotic more.

Activist N’Dana Carter is calling on the mayor to reopen closed clinics, “so that there will be people who are qualified and trained to do the job that police have been doing.”

The Mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. However, in past statements, his office has said that the city’s mental health infrastructure is stronger than it was when the Mayor first took office.

Alternatives to 911

But no matter how many services exist, if Chicagoans have difficulty convincing a loved one to get to a clinic or hospital during those emergencies, they sometimes turn to the police.

A handful of other cities have created an alternative: special teams of mental health professionals who respond to crisis calls.  In Los Angeles County, for example, families can call an 800 number instead of police. Dr. Irma Castaneda directs the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “I can tell you [from] working with families, they don’t want to call 911. They prefer using a civilian using a team. Because the possibility isn’t there of an adverse outcome.”

Castaneda said most situations do not actually need the involvement of law enforcement, but in more dangerous situations, police can be deployed alongside mental health workers.

Of course, programs like this cost money. And both the city and state face big budget woes, leading politicians to cut services in the name of saving taxpayers cash.  

But recent data shows that without local resources for ongoing mental health treatment, people sometimes end up in the most expensive place for care: Emergency Rooms. From 2009 to 2013, 37 percent more patients were discharged from emergency rooms for psychiatric treatment. The biggest jump came in 2012, the same year the city closed half of its mental health clinics.

One hospital said they had a patient who was picked up by an ambulance or police officer almost daily. She visited the emergency room 750 times over the course of 10 years and cost taxpayers at least $2.5 million in Medicaid benefits.

Shannon Heffernan is a reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @shannon_h

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