Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, unveils her dual response police response bill alongside Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria and Unity Point CEO Keith Knapp. The law would send mental health professionals on calls with police officers.

  • Peoria leaders have asked for $5 million from the state to fund the program.
  • The proposal grew out of a discussion between Peoria’s police chief and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth.
  • Officials in Eugene, Oregon, praise a similar program they’ve used for 30 years.

Mental-health experts could be deployed alongside Peoria police officers as soon as late this year as part of a pilot program proposed by state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth.

The Peoria Democrat’s House Bill 5319 would designate Peoria as the pilot city for a possible statewide program involving calls where behavioral health specialists are deemed more effective at handling a situation than patrol officers. 

What’s in the proposal? 

"We know that we have over 600 calls for service that are categorized as mental health calls but we have officers that are responding to that who are on patrol," Police Chief Eric Echevarria said. "What we want to see is we want to be able to take those of their plate because we want our officer to be proactively working to make Peoria safer."

He and Gordon-Booth began working on drafting a proposed pilot program shortly after he took over as chief last summer. 

The goal is twofold: Reduce the amount of calls police need to respond to, and reduce use of force by police.

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Gordon-Booth said she does not yet have a dollar amount for what the program will cost. The city of Peoria asked for $5 million toward to the program in it’s legislative wish list.

The unit’s three primary areas of focus will be "mental and behavioral health, substance use disorder, and homelessness issues," according the the bill. 

Echevarria said that he’d like to see a scenario where a social worker responds to every domestic violence call the department gets and likewise would like to see juvenile case workers deployed on calls who can follow up with kids afterward. 

"Peoria is full of services, we just need to be able to funnel those services together and work together to get the services together in the right place at the right time," Echevarria said.

What’s the timeline for getting this started?

When the proposal gets a vote is up in the air because of a broader collection of public-safety bills being worked on, with Gordon-Booth involved in the negotiations as part of a Criminal Justice Working Group among lawmakers.

The House’s Police and Fire Committee put a series of public-safety bills on hold until those negotiations are completed.

Gordon-Booth said other communities interested in the program, like Springfield, Waukegan and East St. Louis, have already asked her to keep efforts moving on the legislation and said she feels the bill is still in a strong position given the support it has received from "diverse communities from across the state."

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If passed by the General Assembly, the bill dictates the program should be running "no later" than six months after its passage. With lawmakers scheduled to adjourn in April, if the bill passes Gov. JB Pritzker would then have 60 days to sign it, meaning a program could be up and running by year’s end.

Unity Place plans to add additional staff "to make sure we’ve got the proper support for this program." But how many staff they will be adding is not yet known, said Mary Sparks-Thompson, the president of Unity Place. 

Why work with Unity Place?

The decision to work with Unity Place was an easy one for Gordon-Booth. It’s the mental and behavioral health wing of the UnityPoint Health medical operation in Peoria, and represents the combination of a trio of long-running not-for-profit organizations.

"The fact is that Unity Place is a behavioral health and mental health leader in this region and I don’t think that can be stated enough because of the key role they have played for decades in this space," Gordon-Booth said. "We’re very blessed to have them operating in this capacity and working so close with the Peoria Police Department to ensure this opportunity, this initiative is successful."

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Keith Knepp, UnityPoint’s central Illinois CEO, said both "statistics and stories" —individual successes — will be used to measure the program’s achievement if it’s implemented.

"The statistics are going to be who all comes to see us that didn’t see us before but when we hear the stories of those who are impacted we know we’ve made a difference too," Knepp said. 

Where have similar programs been deployed? 

Eugene, Oregon, which has a population just under 200,000, has been using a similar program for the past 30 years. 

Known as CAHOOTS — Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets — the Eugene program has been sending mental health counselors on calls alongside police, and sometimes on their own, to great success over the years, officials there say.

"CAHOOTS really fills a gap in services in our area," said Eugene 911 Communication Supervisor Emily Macauley. "There’s a lot of calls that come into the police department that aren’t exactly public safety-related but there’s a lack of services, especially after hours and on weekends, where we really don’t have a place to go or send them."

Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner said he gets asked regularly by other departments how the relationship works between the police and the CAHOOTS workers.

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"I tell everybody the same thing: It takes time, it takes effort. It takes investment on both parts to want to understand we’re both a part of a bigger system and we have our own unique needs that we address and that we will need to continue to address," Skinner said. 

Stephen King, a 911 dispatcher with the Eugene Police Department, said some people call 911 and specifically ask for CAHOOTS rather than the police. 

"There are people who have had bad experiences with the police and react very poorly to uniformed police officers, these people might by default become violent if an officer shows up," King said. "These same people are sometimes people CAHOOTS personnel has a good rapport with and even if they’re acting violently, we communicated … with the watch commander and CAHOOTS and get the approval, they’ll say ‘yeah we’re absolutely comfortable going and talking with this guy.’"

via Peoria Journal Star

February 23, 2022 at 11:01PM