City bolsters mental health training after scathing DOJ report

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Chicago is bolstering its response to emergencies involving people suffering from mental illness to address glaring deficiencies laid bare by the Justice Department, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.

An eight-hour course developed in partnership with EMS System Hospitals will allow paramedics, 911 personnel, police officers and mental health providers to engage in live, “scenario-based” simulations at Fire Academy South, 1338 S. Clinton.

The morning class covers psychiatric and behavioral emergencies, signs and symptoms and recommended treatment. The afternoon covers “simulation scenarios” — complete with talking mannequins and actors posing as patients.

A simulation Monday featured a woman in a bar who was disoriented after failing to take her medication.

“Not every case is the same. Sometimes, you’ll have a behavioral emergency that mimics a medical emergency,” said Leslee Stein-Spencer, director of medical administration and regulatory compliance for the Chicago Fire Department.

“You respond together. Together, you can make a determination whether the patient should be transported to a hospital or a mental health care facility. It’s a team approach.”

Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, said the eight-hour course is different than the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training certification because it’s “inter-agency” and “scenario-based.”

“If an officer responds to a scene and so does the fire department, do people know who is supposed to take this person and what they’re supposed to do? This is learning what everybody is supposed to do,” James said.

Last year, the police shootings of Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to announce a 50 percent increase in crisis intervention training for police officers and at least one CIT officer in every district on every watch.

The plan also called for full Crisis Intervention Training certification for all field training officers and newly promoted officers; eight hours of in-service training on mental health awareness for all police officers and improved training for all 911 operators and dispatchers.

A 911 dispatcher hung up on LeGrier and failed to dispatch police in response to the young man’s pleas for help.

When Chicago Police officers did respond, they shot and killed the bat-wielding LeGrier and accidentally killed his neighbor, Bettie Jones.

In its scathing indictment, the Justice Department concluded that the Chicago Police Department “uses force against people in crisis where force might have been avoided had a well-trained CIT officer responded to the scene and employed de-escalation techniques.”

Documentation of those incidents was “often insufficient to determine whether force was necessary, appropriate or lawful,” the report said. As a result, all that is known are the “broad contours of terribly sad events” where officers used force against people in crisis.

“In one case, officers used a Taser against an unarmed, naked 65-year-old woman who had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia,” the report stated.

“Officers used a Taser to subdue a mental [health patient] who ignored verbal commands because he was believed to be a danger to himself and others. . . . Officers who were responding to a call that a woman was ‘off meds and not violent’ Tasered an unarmed woman because she pulled away and repeatedly moved her arm.”

At the same time Emanuel is vowing to deliver CIT training to 35 percent of the police force by the end of this year, the Justice Department said the mayor has reduced the number of officers charged with delivering that training from nine people in 2008 to three people today.

“CPD has not dedicated adequate resources to the CIT unit, thereby limiting its effectiveness and failing to achieve the promises of effective crisis intervention,” the report concluded.

“Because the staff . . . is now consumed with increased training demands, it is even more difficult for them to perform other critical functions, including conducting evaluations and follow-up.”

The city’s “commendable desire for a rapid development” of the CIT program “should not come at the expense of the quality” of its CIT response, the report stated.

“Effective crisis response requires a Police Department to designate and train certain officers to be members of the CIT and dispatch the officers to all crisis intervention calls,” the report states.

“It is important that all CIT officers have volunteered for this assignment. Officers who volunteer are more likely to have a deeper interest in and commitment to working with people in crisis and they are more likely to develop proficiency and expertise.”

Last year, the City Council authorized a $4.95 million settlement to the family of a 38-year-old man who suffered a mental breakdown, was shocked 13 times with a Taser and was subsequently handcuffed and dragged from his cell by Chicago Police officers. A federal judge ruled that the incident, which was caught on video, amounted to “brute force.”

When Philip Coleman’s parents reportedly pleaded with the officers to take their son to Jackson Park Hospital because of his aggressive and bizarre behavior, a sergeant told them, “We don’t do hospitals. We do jail.”

On Monday, Police Supt. Eddie Johnson was asked whether police officers have changed the cavalier attitude exemplified by the Coleman case and in the 2006 death of Christina Eilman.

Chicago taxpayers spent $22.5 million to compensate Eilman, the mentally ill California woman who was arrested at Midway Airport in 2006, then released in a high-crime neighborhood where she was sexually assaulted before falling or being pushed from a CHA high-rise.

“It’s my challenge as the superintendent to ensure that we give these officers the best training around,” he said.

“Because we are ensuring that they have that, when they meet these types of incidents, they’ll know how to properly respond to it. . . . We owe it to every citizen of Chicago to give them the best service that we can. Part of it is being able to identify people in mental health crisis.”