Cook Co. Sheriff's Office co-responder program helps Oak Lawn police respond to mental health calls

Mental health professional assists in call via iPad or tablet
OAK LAWN, Ill. (WLS) -- There's an effort underway in Oak Lawn to provide even more mental health resources to those who need it.

The Cook County Sheriff's Office is expanding a new mental health response program.

The program connects mental health professionals with police officers to virtually help people during a mental health event.

The program was first put into place in January.

Oak Lawn is the first municipality to sign on to the sheriff's office's new mental health virtual co-responder program as the program expanded to the south suburbs.

The concept is simple: It allows a mental health professional to assist police virtually as officers respond to a call involving a mental health event.

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Started a year ago by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the program looks to help those experiencing mental illness.

When police respond to a call and someone is in mental distress, they use an assigned tablet or iPad to virtually connect the person with a mental health expert who can help deescalate what can often be a dangerous situation.

Oak Lawn is the first suburb to join the sheriff's office program, which has been in operation since January.

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Village officials said since the pandemic, they've seen an increase in the number of calls involving someone with some type of mental illness or extreme stress.

"I was amazed when the sheriff and his team presented this to us back in late June," Oak Lawn Police Chief Daniel Vittorio said. "I was amazed at how quickly you can get a counselor on an iPad, on a Zoom session, within a matter of seconds - not minutes - within seconds."

The new program is an extension of an existing $400,000 assistance program sponsored by the sheriff.

"We knock on the door, we talk to the people there, we ask if they'd rather go this other route, they say 'yes,'" Dart said. "Literally, the tablet is handed to them. There's a mental health professional on the other end, and they talk everybody through it. And nine times out of 10, the individual then walks their way onto an ambulance and goes and gets the treatment they need, virtually no involvement with the criminal justice system."

It also provides a critical post-incident resource to those struggling with mental illness and their families, as they navigate treatment.

Oak Lawn officials said they have successfully handled about a dozen calls using the program over the last three weeks.

They hope more suburbs will join the effort.
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