Elías Román and his wife were chatting with some friends outside their house in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood a couple weeks ago when three police vehicles raced up the street.
“They came flying in, back-to-back, with their lights on,” Román said.
They stopped in front of a one-story house a few doors down, where a mother had called 911, saying her 20-year-old son had threatened her and that he claimed to have a gun.
Román had known this family for years. And it was no secret the young man had bipolar disorder, a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings.
“His mom had told us he takes medication for it,” Román said.
Within minutes, about 10 police cars had arrived, including an armored SWAT truck full of officers who pulled out shields and rifles, Román said.
“Seeing all these cops out here, man, I was a bit nervous,” Román said. He feared the young man would end up arrested or shot.
Chicago still relies almost entirely on the police to handle mental-health crisis calls that come into 911 — an approach that swells Cook County Jail with mentally ill inmates and leads to violent confrontations in the city, according to a growing chorus of advocates and officials. Police Supt. David Brown has written that the police in 2019 responded to more than 41,000 calls with a mental health component and that the pace accelerated in the first half of last year.
Starting next week, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration, the city’s response to those calls will begin to change.
During the Aug. 11 commotion on that Little Village block, the mother who called 911 said her son had gone off his meds and locked himself in the basement, Román said.
Román said the young man was peeking through a front window of that basement, a few feet from the street where the police vehicles had amassed.
But Román, a former gang member who is now employed as an anti-violence worker, said he doubted there were any guns inside.
“I’ve known him since he was a little kid,” Román said. “He never seemed like the guy to carry some guns.”
The police still took the threat seriously. The standoff lasted for hours.
Román is not a mental health professional but the officers eventually allowed him to try to talk the young man out of the basement.
Román said he put his youth mentoring skills to work: “ ‘You got a crowd out here waiting for you,’ I told him, playing around. And he’s like, ‘Yeah, man, they want to get me.’ I’m like, ‘They don’t want to get you. It’s just that everybody’s concerned because you said there are guns. … Come on, man, don’t do that to yourself or your family. … Think about your safety.’ That’s what I was telling him.”
It worked. The young man came out and an ambulance took him to St. Anthony Hospital.
If not for Román — a neighbor who knew the 20-year-old and was willing to step into a volatile situation — the young man could have ended up jailed, injured, even killed. Those things have happened in Chicago when police have responded to mental health crises.
But Matt Richards, a Chicago Department of Public Health deputy commissioner, said in a recent Zoom call with mental health advocates that the city is starting to transform its crisis responses.
“We’re really moving towards a model that really aspires to have residents, in those circumstances, met by health care professionals — specifically mental health professionals who have the training that’s needed in order to resolve the residents’ concerns,” Richards told the group.
Starting Monday, according to Public Health officials, new teams will respond to crisis calls in two areas, one on the South Side, the other on the North Side. The teams will consist of a Fire Department paramedic, a CDPH mental health crisis clinician, and a police officer trained in crisis response.
Advocates see it as a step in the right direction but some are concerned because the police will still have a role.
“The mere presence of police officers can trigger a full-out crisis,” said Arturo Carrillo, director of neighborhood health and violence prevention for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “And once police are on the scene, the temptation for police backup … is too great. And before you know it, you can have SWAT teams showing up.”
Carrillo said the police involvement could make people hesitant to call for help in the first place.
University of Chicago health policy expert Harold Pollack agreed that introducing police into a mental health crisis raises the stakes. But he said it’s not an easy call.
Pollack said to imagine a 911 call during which a mother asks for help with her adult son in a mental health crisis: “We really don’t want to see a law enforcement response to that; we’re not trying to criminalize that person. But it’s also a fact that he’s punched his mom before. And she’s been hurt and she’s a 60-year-old woman and he’s a 28-year-old man. Do we send a police officer to that call?”
Pollack said there is no obvious answer and suggested that the best response might be to send a clinician who interacts with the son while a police officer remains in the background to respond if safety comes into play, but the cop “is not directly in the face of this person potentially triggering and escalating that situation.”
That setup, when police and mental-health professionals arrive together, is known as a co-responder model. It’s what the city is implementing Monday.
In coming months, however, the city is also promising to try out two crisis response models that will not include police.
Amy Watson, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee social work professor, said the city should invest in those non-police teams.
“My concern if we only go to co-responder models is that we’ll stop there,” she said, “and that the only option for mental health crisis response will always involve a police officer.”
Watson, who has studied Chicago’s crisis response for years, said there are safe ways to have non-police professionals respond to 911 calls, even in high-crime neighborhoods.
“We have other professionals that go into those communities to do their jobs and they’re doing it every day,” Watson said. “We have visiting nurses, community health workers, violence interrupters, and we can learn from them how to do it safely.”