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.”