Local law enforcement agencies find success in crisis intervention teams, training

On April 9, Lake County sheriff’s deputies responded to the home near Deerfield of a man in a mental health crisis and armed with a gun.

A caller had dialed 911 and feared the man would kill his child and the child’s mother, who were both in the home. When deputies arrived, the man allowed the mother and child to leave, then barricaded himself in a bathroom with the gun. For nearly two hours, deputies calmly spoke with the man through the door, stressing they were there to help him. Eventually, they persuaded him to leave the bathroom unarmed and be taken to a hospital for mental health evaluation and treatment.

Lake County authorities later would credit crisis intervention training and the officers’ calm, steady handling of the situation with peacefully resolving a case that could have ended in tragedy. Their actions, criminal justice experts say, represent a growing trend among police agencies throughout the suburbs and the nation to focus on mental health issues when negotiating in crisis situations.

Lake County deputies would have a second opportunity to apply the training just two days later. This time, they found a man threatening suicide while armed with a knife. At his request, they put him on the phone with a military combat veteran, an off-duty member of the sheriff’s office. Working together, the officers persuaded the man to be taken to a hospital for care.

Jac Charlier, executive director of the Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities Center for Health and Justice, says crisis intervention training has existed for decades in law enforcement, but shifting awareness of mental illness issues combined with high-profile cases ending in violence have led to policy changes and new programs.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said that for five years the department has focused on a philosophy of de-escalation first when possible, and particularly when dealing with situations potentially involving a mental health crisis.

“It’s proven to be extremely successful,” Covelli said. “It’s the right thing to do, to take time and engage in healthy dialogue with individuals, especially those who might be in crisis.”

In 2018, the sheriff’s office implemented the Crisis Outreach and Support Team, or COaST, which pairs an officer or deputy with a mental health clinician for certain calls. Although it began with just the sheriff’s office, the program has expanded to include six police departments in Lake County.

The two situations in early April occurred without COaST on the scene. But all deputies are trained in crisis intervention, and Covelli said the shift in philosophy toward de-escalation has been well-received throughout the department, leading to an overall decrease in force used by deputies.

In Naperville and Elgin, police departments run similar co-response programs that pair an officer with a mental health professional to respond to real-time calls, conduct follow-ups and offer resources to the community.

Elgin’s co-response program, called the Collaborative Crisis Services Unit, was established in 2019. It debuted a little over a year after the fatal Elgin police shooting of Decynthia Clements, who had a history of mental health issues and who family members asserted was experiencing a crisis when she was killed.

Sgt. Rick Demeirre, who heads up the unit, said it was created not in response to any particular incident, but because of a general uptick in mental health calls.

According to Demeirre, the unit has been successful, particularly through follow-up mental health and addiction care for any “emotionally distressed” person on a 911 call. The unit office also is open for people to get care without calling first, and between five and eight people walk into the office daily to meet with the unit’s counselors and detectives, Demeirre said.

In one case, Demeirre said the unit was able to sit down with a person who had called 911 on multiple occasions threatening suicide. By communicating with this person when not in crisis mode, unit members were able to discuss how the person could get more effective and lasting help. Now, Demeirre said, the person comes directly into the unit office when experiencing a crisis, alleviating the need for patrol officers to respond to calls and reducing the potential for unnecessary force.

At an April 18 event hosted by Naperville Citizens Appreciate Public Safety, Naperville police Chief Jason Arres and social services counselor Eirene Boulougouris spoke about mental health and crisis intervention. Courtesy of Ron Hume/Naperville CAPS

Eirene Boulougouris, counselor with the Naperville Social Services Unit, said de-escalation training is a major focus for the police department, and she said she trusts officers to successfully handle crisis situations even in the absence of a mental health professional.

Boulougouris and Naperville Police Chief Jason Arres spoke at a community event on April 18 about warning signs of someone going through a mental health crisis, what individuals can do to help and how the police department responds to such calls. Boulougouris emphasized the value of getting people help early, before a crisis occurs.

“The most important part for me is that the public is aware that we have resources available,” Boulougouris said. “And, that it doesn’t necessarily require a police interaction for the community to have those resources.”

In Cook County, sheriff’s deputies use a virtual program in crisis situations to initiate a video call with a mental health clinician at any hour of the day, any day of the week. Ellen Montgomery, executive director of the department’s Treatment Response Team, said the virtual framework eliminates potentially long response times within the department’s large jurisdiction. The county also provides the program to 31 police departments in Cook County.

Montgomery said the program has seen “tremendous growth” since it began in 2021, due in large part to buy-in from officers. In the first year of the program, 138 on-scene video calls were made. In 2023, that number nearly doubled to 269.

Charlier said the choice between a virtual or in-person program is based on the resources available to a department and the type of population to which it is trying to respond. More serious, high-risk situations often are better dealt with in person, while low-risk encounters often can be taken care of virtually, Charlier added.

Charlier stressed care and intervention beyond the moment of a police encounter as the only way to avoid a cycle of crisis situations.

“The intervention, which is nine-tenths of it … is where the actual change occurs,” Charlier said. “The engagement, the trust-building, the ongoing care.”

He stressed relationships between law enforcement agencies and community health entities must continue to grow, and emphasized the stress and difficulties that crisis situations cause to those in crisis and their families, as well as the officers and mental health professionals who respond.

“Complex chronic challenges are not solved by short-term, easy fixes,” Charlier said. “We need to keep that in mind so we’re not looking for magic here.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.