City steps up mental health training for Chicago police

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Chicago police will be getting more training as the city makes changes in how it responds to calls involving people with mental illness. (WLS)

Chicago police will be getting more training as the city makes changes in how it responds to calls involving people with mental illness. Both officers and 911 dispatchers will receive the enhanced training.

Mental health professionals tells us funding for help has been cut in recent years, both locally and nationally.

They are eager for efforts in Chicago to better prepare first responders. They say that kind of support can make all the difference for someone in distress.

Chicago police answer thousands of calls for help, and some those calls will involve a person with mental illness. New efforts are underway to better prepare first responders to de-escalate and get people assistance.

"One in four people experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. So, it touches families, it touches professionals, it touches police. So we need to make sure as a culture we're equipped with tools to support people in crisis," said Alexa James, National Alliance on Mental Illness in Chicago.

On Friday, Mayor Emanuel announced reforms to improve crisis intervention: the Chicago police crisis intervention team program will expand 50-percent capacity, training for all police officers, more training for 911 operators and dispatchers, and improved access to services.

"A way of looking at the situation as a mental health illness rather than as a criminal incident. And that's the right perspective," Emanuel said.

"We can stop this cycle of death, of homelessness, of incarceration, of sending people to ERs and hospitals. There's a better way," said Mark Ishaug, Thresholds CEO.

Willie Cook is a client at Thresholds. Decades ago when his mental illness problems began, he was in Mississippi. He says police there arrested him several times and he didn't get mental health treatment for years.

"They weren't trying to understand. They just put a sting on a person," Cook said.

He tells us what he needed years ago was help from first responders, instead of being locked up with violent offenders.

"They need counseling, and people to help them deal with their problems. And putting them in jail or prison isn't going to help them," Cook said.

Cook is 61 now, lives on his own and says he feels healthy. He reminds us sometimes people need help and don't know how to ask.

It's possible that mental health professionals could someday be embedded with first responders. But for now, the focus will be on getting that training done and better tracking 911 calls that involve a person with mental illness.

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