A New Crisis Hotline Could Serve As an Alternative to Policing in Chicago

Police aren’t social workers. A new proposal would stop them from doing both jobs.

Taylor Moore

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

CHICA­GO — Since the upris­ings sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May, racial jus­tice activists across the coun­try have renewed calls to defund” local police depart­ments and reap­por­tion their bud­gets to social pro­grams. In Chica­go, a new pro­pos­al intro­duced by social­ist and pro­gres­sive alder­men marks the City Council’s first seri­ous leg­isla­tive attempt to do so.

On Sep­tem­ber 9, 33rd Ward Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez intro­duced an order call­ing for the cre­ation of a 24-hour cri­sis hot­line that would divert calls about sui­cide, home­less­ness, sub­stance use and con­flict res­o­lu­tion away from the police and toward a team of social work­ers, nurs­es and emer­gency med­ical tech­ni­cians. The pro­gram would be oper­at­ed by the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health and Office of Emer­gency Man­age­ment and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and fund­ing would come direct­ly out of the 2021 Chica­go Police Depart­ment bud­get, which cur­rent­ly stands at $1.78 billion.

Rodriguez Sanchez, who rep­re­sents parts of Albany Park, Irv­ing Park, and Avon­dale on the city’s North­west Side, says the goal is to move away from the police’s puni­tive” approach and toward a pub­lic safe­ty mod­el that pri­or­i­tizes men­tal health. Police are more like­ly to engage in a neg­a­tive way with Black and brown peo­ple. We are talk­ing about a non-racist approach to pub­lic safe­ty … focused on racial equity.”

Backed by eight alder­men, the pro­posed Chica­go Cri­sis Response and Care Sys­tem also calls for reopen­ing the six city-fund­ed men­tal health clin­ics that were closed by for­mer May­or Rahm Emanuel in 2012. Cur­rent­ly, there are five pub­lic clin­ics in the city, with the Rose­land clin­ic hav­ing under­gone pri­va­ti­za­tion in 2016. May­or Lori Light­foot increased fund­ing for men­tal health clin­ics (both pub­lic and pri­vate) in last year’s bud­get, but has been slow to take con­crete steps toward her cam­paign promise of reopen­ing the closed city clinics.

If this pro­pos­al is imple­ment­ed, res­i­dents can call a new city line, 211, for men­tal health and hous­ing crises, non-emer­gency first aid, sui­cide inter­ven­tion and con­flict medi­a­tion. From there, a clin­i­cal social work­er and either a reg­is­tered nurse or emer­gency med­ical tech­ni­cian would be dis­patched. The pro­gram is inspired by Cri­sis Assis­tance Help­ing Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), a 31-year-old cri­sis inter­ven­tion pro­gram oper­at­ing in the Eugene-Spring­field metro area of Ore­gon. Accord­ing to White Bird Clin­ic, the sub­con­tract­ed non­prof­it that oper­ates CAHOOTS, less than 1% of the 24,000 calls to the non-emer­gency num­ber in 2019 required police backup.

Oth­er cities, such as Den­ver, Oak­land and Port­land have launched sim­i­lar pro­grams. As pres­sure to defund and even­tu­al­ly abol­ish the police mounts from orga­niz­ers, city gov­ern­ments are scram­bling to find solu­tions that reform police depart­ments with­out dis­band­ing them alto­geth­er, which has been Minneapolis’s approach. For exam­ple, Los Ange­les City Coun­cil cut its police bud­get by $150 mil­lion (an 8% decrease) in July. May­or Lori Light­foot, how­ev­er, stands as one of the most promi­nent Demo­c­ra­t­ic may­ors to resist police reform in the wake of the recent upris­ings. Light­foot has referred to the defund move­ment as, sim­ply, a nice hashtag.”

Arturo Car­ril­lo, Direc­tor of Vio­lence Pre­ven­tion and Neigh­bor­hood Health Ini­tia­tives at Brighton Park Neigh­bor­hood Coun­cil and a clin­i­cal social work­er, says that men­tal health work­ers should be part of the pub­lic infra­struc­ture” in the same way that police offi­cers, fire­fight­ers and teach­ers are. Under the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health, there would be over­sight and account­abil­i­ty mea­sures. With sub­con­tract­ed non­prof­its, it becomes a game of who owns respon­si­bil­i­ty. Com­mu­ni­ties should have pub­lic input and pub­lic over­sight,” says Carrillo.

Accord­ing to Diane Adams, board mem­ber of South­side Togeth­er Orga­niz­ing for Pow­er (STOP) and a for­mer client of the since-closed Auburn-Gre­sham Men­tal Health Cen­ter, Pri­va­ti­za­tion is all about mon­ey. When you go into [a pri­vate clin­ic], the psy­chi­a­trist or ther­a­pist will look at their watch. You have one hour or 30 min­utes for con­ver­sa­tion, then they give you a prescription.”

The cri­sis hot­line pro­gram would also address key con­cerns over police not being trained to de-esca­late sit­u­a­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involv­ing peo­ple who are home­less or expe­ri­enc­ing men­tal health crises. It’s a very short train­ing that is pro­vid­ed for [police] to iden­ti­fy men­tal health emer­gen­cies. They don’t give you near­ly enough infor­ma­tion to man­age it,” Rodriguez Sanchez says. We have seen many instances in which police have felt threat­ened and they have shot peo­ple that are in crisis.”

For exam­ple, in 2017, Ricar­do Ricky” Hayes, an autis­tic teenag­er, was shot by off-duty police sergeant Khalil Muham­mad. And in 2015, Chica­go police fatal­ly shot 19-year-old Quin­to­nio LeGri­er, whose 911 calls had been dis­missed by first respon­ders ear­li­er that night, as well as Bet­tie Jones, a build­ing res­i­dent caught in the line of police fire.

When you have police respond­ing, you’re not hav­ing a psy­choso­cial eval­u­a­tion, and you’re not respond­ing to what their socioe­co­nom­ic needs are,” Car­ril­lo says. Under this pro­pos­al, a per­son could be served by a med­ical and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­al instead of an armed offi­cer. If some­one is hav­ing chron­ic health issues because they don’t have med­ica­tion, maybe the para­medic shows up and can test their glu­cose lev­els, and then a social work­er can try to find fol­low-up care for the indi­vid­ual with untreat­ed dia­betes and the depres­sion that may come along with that.”

Rodriguez Sanchez says she expects to meet with the mayor’s office, Pub­lic Health Com­mis­sion­er Alli­son Arwady, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Office of Emer­gency Man­age­ment and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Rich Guidice, and Bud­get Direc­tor Susie Park in the com­ing weeks, with an eye toward sched­ul­ing a Health and Human Rela­tions Com­mit­tee pub­lic hear­ing by Octo­ber 30. The alder­woman has drawn some heat from con­stituents who want a larg­er police pres­ence and more cam­eras to address the rash of shoot­ings in the 33rd Ward. But Rodriguez Sanchez says the men­tal health cri­sis in the city is itself an emergency.

Adams, who lives in the South Side neigh­bor­hood of Park Manor, echoes this sen­ti­ment, say­ing that the pro­pos­al is less about cut­ting the police bud­get than it is about real­lo­cat­ing it to fund nec­es­sary social ser­vices. “[The police] are killing us left and right. Put that mon­ey into men­tal health and the com­mu­ni­ty. We need that mon­ey more than the police.”

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