'Phone a friend': Cook County sheriff, Northbrook police partner on crisis intervention program
In a way, there is now a social worker in every Northbrook police squad car.
A new partnership with the Cook County sheriff's Treatment Response Team is bolstering the police department's 40-year history of handling crisis situations through its Counseling Services Unit.
"We really are lucky," Police Chief Christopher Kennedy said of the partnership.
The partnership works within the auspices of the sheriff's Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program. Created at the direction of Sheriff Tom Dart in December 2020, the Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program was implemented to handle calls involving people in mental health crises, in addition to substance abuse issues, all exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Treatment Response Team Director Elli Petacque Montgomery said: "We're not arresting our way out of this problem."
"Law enforcement are not the people to be doing this, but historically we always have been," added Dart, who noted that 40% to 50% of calls to his office for domestic incidents boil down to mental health issues.
Under the Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program, responding officers use an iPad or tablet, squad phone or even a cellphone to link the subject, family or loved one to a Treatment Response Team clinician available 24 hours a day.
"You're basically giving the police an opportunity to phone a friend. And that friend is a mental health professional," Petacque Montgomery said. "They give the tablet to the individual who wants to talk to the mental health professional, who can de-escalate, start offering options, work with the individual during the crisis and post-incident, without arrest."
In Northbrook's case, Cook County clinicians will then refer the client to the department's Counseling Services Unit the next day.
"What's nice about this for Northbrook is they don't have to have a social worker leave their house at 2 a.m. and potentially go into a dangerous situation. The CVAP program allows for instantaneous connection to a mental health professional when the police are called out on a service call, a 911 call," Petacque Montgomery said.
Northbrook officers received training March 22-23 led by sheriff's Sgt. Efrain Mata. The department is the third in the suburbs to join the program, along with Oak Lawn and Blue Island.
From the program's soft launch Jan. 1, 2021, to March 21 of this year, sheriff's deputies had facilitated 110 Zoom calls and 61 phone calls. Of those, 44 clients still receive services by the Treatment Response Team. A 24-hour line -- 309-4ME-HELP (463-4357) -- is given to current clients or others who may need real-time assistance.
"Do we provide crisis intervention? Yes," said Nancy Vaccaro, director of the Northbrook Police Department's Counseling Services Unit. "But this will augment that in terms of maybe an ongoing conversation in the middle of the night or on the weekend or on a holiday that would require additional police services."
Sheriff's officials said there is a "minimal financial impact" to joining the program.
During the March 23 training in Northbrook, Mata cited a case involving a parent and child in a domestic dispute. Once police connected the youth to a TRT clinician by something comfortable and familiar -- an electronic device -- she settled down and made progress.
"It was much easier for her to talk to the tablet," Mata said. "And we see, hey, we're on to something that's going to assist our officers."
Sgt. Jon Salmi, head of the Northbrook Police Crisis Intervention Team, said 10% of 911 calls across the nation involve a mental health crisis. Salmi said it's about the same in Northbrook, and rising.
While officers retain the ability to make arrests when needed, CVAP gives them other options when appropriate.
"I think it's going to be very useful," Salmi said.
Kennedy said he sees the program as part of the police department's mission to serve.
"It's understanding environment, it's giving people a window to speak and be heard -- and sure, to make policemen's lives safer and easier, too," he said.