Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Chicago Takes Mental Health Crisis One Zoom Call at a Time


CHICAGO – The sergeant had used the tablet so little that she didn’t bother to grab it from the seat of her police car when she ran into the house where a suicidal man was screaming and banging his head. head against the ground.

But when she saw that the man was in danger of injuring himself, his family or his officers with knives he threatened to use, she sent an officer to retrieve the tablet. She turned it on, handed it to the man, and told him to talk to the woman whose face appeared on the screen. And then she saw the man calm down immediately.

“When I saw how this tool calmed him down, I thought, holy smoke, this is amazing,” Cook County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bonnie Busching.

The scene marked the first time the department took the idea of ​​the Zoom call that became so mainstream during the COVID-19 pandemic and inserted it into one of the most dangerous things a police officer does can do: answer a call for domestic disturbances.

Law enforcement agencies nationwide are fighting the increase in violent crime as calls mount to change the way police interact with citizens, especially those with mental health issues. Police are still most often the first to be called to the scene, and the Sheriff’s Department’s Treatment Response Team is a new approach to handling such calls.

Launched two years ago, the effort was designed to help the 300 members of the Sheriff’s Department police force deal with a growing number of drug overdose calls during a national opioid crisis.

Then, as the pandemic left more people isolated in their homes, unable to connect to services or unwilling to go out and at risk of falling ill, the department was faced with an explosion of 911 calls linked to threats of suicide and other mental health crises.

The sheriff, who made national headlines for running programs in his prison to deal with the growing number of inmates with mental health issues, has now seen the same kind of issues play out for his officers in the street.

“We were increasingly asked to be the first responders for mental health cases and asked to do things for which they had no training or minimal training,” said Tom Dart, whose department is the second largest sheriff’s office. around the country and patrols unincorporated parts of Cook County and many of its smaller communities. He has seen the number of 911 calls involving mental health issues increase by almost 60% this year.

There are other programs across the country, but most involve mental health professionals who travel with police officers or in ambulances, Dart said. It’s fine for small communities, but it wasn’t practical for Cook County, where getting from one end to the other – without traffic – takes well over an hour.

“How many ambulances should we buy and how many should we rent to transport them all?” »Dard asked
Enter the tablets.

“We wanted a tool that would allow officers to immediately bring this mental health expert to the scene,” said Elli Petaque-Montgomery, team director.

So far, the department has 70 tablets – 35 purchased with grants when the program started and 35 more when it became apparent that the number of Zoom calls would increase.

Additionally, with a program that the department uses throughout the county as well as in western Chicago, there have been times when Zoom calls have not been possible, due to irregular service or other reasons. In nearly 20 cases, officers established a phone call between people in crisis and mental health professionals.

Meanwhile, four clinicians and other mental health professionals already working for the service were joined by four others to answer calls. Dart said the price of clinicians and pills – a few hundred dollars each – was a fraction of what it would cost to send a small army of mental health professionals ready to take to the streets.

“We’re not asking anyone to work an eight-hour shift, we just ask them to be available,” said Dart, whose office announced last week that a suburb, Oak Lawn, has joined the program. The hope is that more will follow.

Yet such a program can only work if police officers, especially those who have been around for a while and have a certain way of doing things, embrace the idea of ​​ceding at least some control of situations to someone. ‘one – and something – else.

“I don’t play video games and I wasn’t brought up in an era where you use FaceTime and text instead of dealing face to face,” Busching said. And she didn’t like the idea of ​​someone on a video screen looking over her shoulder and telling her what to do.

But that December night, she quickly concluded she had no choice and, borrowing a famous line from a game show, told the man she was going to “phone a friend”.

“I looked at the guy and I said, ‘This lady is going to help you, it’s not the police, it’s a therapist,’” Busching said.

Busching might be one of those who isn’t very comfortable with Zoom calling and texting, but she quickly learned what anyone with teenage boys already knows.

“People spend a lot of time on electronic devices, they’re comfortable with them, and they feel more secure face to face with a person,” said Petaque-Montgomery, who was on the other end of the phone. . And, she said, handing the tablet to the man, Busching signaled a level of confidence.

It signaled something to the officers themselves.

“They saw that they could get into (situations) that historically meant hours and hours and tons of paperwork and potentially the use of force and hand the tablet to the clinician and let the clinician do his job to that he can do theirs, ”said Petaque-Montgomery.

“We can even slide a tablet under a door so they don’t even have to see a cop,” Dart added.

A mother of a struggling 12-year-old boy who continued to run away and needed mental health assistance a few weeks ago could see the change in her agitated son’s behavior when the officer handed him the tablet. This changed even more when the conversation with the clinician began.

“The way he (the clinician) spoke my son could see he understood,” said the woman, who requested anonymity because she does not want her son identified. “He likes it because someone is talking to him and seeing the human behind the voice helps.”

For Busching, questions she had about the tablets and concerns about what might happen if she was forced to try and restrain a man who had threatened to kill himself disappeared when what looked like a situation that could easily turning into a physical confrontation ended quietly. .

“He gave me his hand and went to the ambulance with me,” she said.

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