Aurora, Chicago police departments reimagine how they respond to 911 calls for mental health crises

CHICAGO (WLS) — When someone is in a mental or behavioral health crisis, a call to 911 can become a crisis in itself.

So what should happen when police, jail, hospital emergency rooms or use of force aren’t the best answers?

New programs with reimagined response teams are aiming to redefine bad or even deadly outcomes.

To deal with the increasing number of mental health crisis calls, police agencies across Illinois are adding social service programs into their departments.

Brain Solache benefited from one such co-responder program in Aurora.

“I probably would have attacked someone just to have the officers be coerced to shoot me,” he explained.

Solache was just 18 years old when he became so despondent that he said he wanted to get the police to shoot him. Instead, he was talked into living.

Aurora police investigator Kaylea Young was on the scene that day.

“The call came out that it was a subject at the train station with a potential of being a suicide by cop situation. So we knew there was a danger. We knew the potential for a weapon was there,” she said.

Solache explained that an argument with a family member and his unmanaged mental illness sent him spiraling. He had a knife and was threatening to use it.

“Just cracked… just was done with everything. I was at that point where I was angry at everyone, everything — even myself,” he said.

The tense scene was captured on police dashcam video in June 2021 as the distraught teenager threatened suicide at the Aurora train station.

Among the responding officers was the newly formed Crisis Intervention Unit, or CIU, consisting of specially trained police investigators and social workers.

The co-responders spent nearly an hour and a half talking with Solache until he gave up the knife.

No one was injured.

Aurora Police Department investigator David Guevara works in the specialized unit along with Young.

“He’s gotten help and we were part of that process and we would have never been because it was not something that the police department had, something we are doing now,” said Guevara

RELATED: Chicago area peer support organization aims to help with police officer suicide prevention

In the middle of a crisis or as a well-being follow up, the Aurora unit works to identify individuals better served with intervention.

The Aurora Police Department said so far this year, the unit has responded to nearly 100 more mental health calls compared to last year and, they note, calls to 911 for non-emergencies have dropped.

Hortensia Fuentes, one of the social workers who works with the unit, said even though there are no hard numbers yet, they are seeing benefits.

“We can see the recidivism go down almost immediately. We have a few of our regulars that instead of calling 911, they call us,” she said.

In Chicago, the Crisis Assistance Response and Engagement, or CARE, pilot program has been underway for the past year. It has been integrating behavioral healthcare professionals into the city’s 911 response system.

Matt Richards, Deputy Commissioner of Behavioral Health for the Chicago Department of Public Health said the model integrating mental health professionals in the 911 response frees up police officers to focus on other significant public safety issues.

“We’ve over-relied on our colleagues in the police department to respond to every single one of those calls. When in reality, the core need would be better addressed by a healthcare professional,” he said.

City officials said the pilot program of reimagined teams are serving Chicago neighborhoods that put out higher 911 mental health calls: Uptown, North Center, Lakeview, Auburn Gresham, Chatham West Englewood, West Elsdon, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn, Gage Park, West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park and Humboldt Park.

Tiffany Patton-Burnside, the senior director of crisis services for CARE, said they are still introducing themselves to the community at large and to the city.

“That van is canvassing the district all day so they’re not only just waiting to be dispatched from OEMC.

They’re looking for individuals that seem or may be in need that’s on site or on view,” she said.

The program recently added a third team with a significant difference: it will operate without a police officer.

“A team that now consists of a community paramedic from the Chicago Fire Department and a licensed clinician,” said Jonathan Zaentz, district chief of special projects for the Chicago Police Department.

“Obviously with any event it can go sideways and things can shift which is part of why behind the scenes we will have the police department aware of where the vehicles are going.”

City officials are seeing early success. Data analyzed by the I-Team shows to date there have been no arrests and no use of force. But, on average, the numbers show less than one response a day by the CARE teams.

“It’s not about taking as many calls in a single day as we can possibly take” Richards added. “I think we are showing you can safely do this. I do think as we move forward we’re going to start taking more and more complicated calls.

In Aurora, Solache said he’s a completely different person and doing well, but is uncertain of what would have happened without the reimagined intervention he received that day.

He wants others who are struggling to know there is help available if you are willing to ask for it.

“I’m very grateful for this, they talked me down. They saved me essentially,” he said.

Authorities expect these programs to continue evolving but both profiled units said the programs will be limited with not enough follow-up mental health services or treatment facilities. Both, they claim, are obstacles to providing long-term solutions.

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