Spingfield IL police department devotes more time to mental health
Editor’s note: This story is the second of three this week exploring mental health and highlighting some of the local efforts taking place to improve the community’s overall mental wellness.
When someone is in a mental health crisis and a potential danger to themselves or others, 911 is often the first call. That can lead to tragic encounters, such as one involving a man and the Chatham Police Department in March.
During the incident — which garnered community support and attention with its “Speak Out For Gregory” movement on social media — Gregory Small’s mother, Keena Small, called 911 and asked police to respond to her home where he son was cutting himself and threatening others.
Dashcam video footage released last month shows the responding officer in the family’s front yard with his gun drawn and ordering Smalls to “put the knife down.” In the video, Small advances toward the officer with a knife in his hand. The officer fires four shots in response.
An investigation by Illinois State Police concluded the officer was justified in his use of force likely to cause death or great bodily harm. However, the incident has led to discussions about how mental health crisis calls are handled.
“I’m fully aware that the police are not the best resource in this situation,” said Gregory Small’s sister, Sunshine Clemons. “But unfortunately, that’s all we have right now.”
Local efforts and state legislation are aimed at improving the approach to crisis response calls. The police reform bill — House Bill 3653 — Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law earlier this year expands crisis intervention training for officers, requires law enforcement agencies to report any incident where an officer was dispatched to deal with a person experiencing a mental health crisis, and adds funding for co-responder models where officers partner with mental health professionals to respond to calls.
In an effort to reduce the number of crisis calls and improve the way they are handled, the Springfield Police Department has adopted a co-responder program that works with mental health professionals from Memorial Behavioral Health.
“The officers that are training CIT are doing a great job at de-escalating the situation the best they can at the time and providing a solution for that moment,” said Sgt. James Doss, who communicates with Memorial Behavior Health professionals on almost a daily basis as part of the co-responder program. “But I want to try to go past that moment, and if possible prevent the next incident from happening.”
Under the state’s new police and criminal justice reform bill, crisis intervention training is required for officers — effective January 1, 2022 — at the basic academy and as part of an annual in-service mandate.
Of Chatham’s 15 sworn police officers, 10 have been through the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board’s 40-hour crisis intervention training program. The one-week program — which is a specialized certification that remains voluntary under the new legislation — helps officers recognize and address individuals with mental illness or experiencing a mental health crisis.
In addition to working to reduce the number of negative interactions with police, the Memorial and SPD partnership invests resources into helping those struggling with their mental health in an effort to decrease homelessness, incarceration rates, and hospitalizations.
“I have been doing this job for about 24 years, and really never got into the mental health side of it to this degree or had the time really to devote to it,” said SPD neighborhood police officer Steve Termine. He pairs up with Memorial mental health professional each week.
“In our position, it does allow us time to devote to these different types of programs and just see the big benefit from being able to offer these type of resources to people that are in crisis or have been in crisis, and that we deal with on a continual basis on the police side. To be able to get them linked up with resources and improve their quality of life in general, I think it makes a big difference.
“I’m very happy to be a part of it.”
Connecting people to resources
Harold Cook was living outside of the Walgreens near the corner of North Ninth Street and North Grand Avenue East with a group of other people who were homeless g when he first came onto the radar of the city’s co-responder program.
During his five years living on the street, local police responded to numerous nuisance calls about him trespassing and sleeping outside. Through the co-responder program Cook, 55, was connected with resources that put a roof over his head.
For about a year, he has been living in an apartment — for which Helping Hands covers the cost — off of North Grand Avenue East. Now that he has a stable living environment, the co-responder program is focused on helping him address his depression and alcohol dependency and work through trauma he has experienced.
As part of the program, a social worker from Memorial Behavior Health stops by Cook’s apartment at least twice a week ensuring he has what he needs to stay on track with doctor’s appointments and medications. They also talk in hopes of building trust to address some of the trauma he experienced prior to homelessness and as a result of it.
“They just talk to me and stuff. It makes you feel good,” said Cook recently, sitting outside his apartment trying to hold back tears. “I mean, I’m not a bad person. It’s just nice when people actually talk to you. You don’t know how it was on the streets. You really don’t. I hope you never experience it.”
Cook was among the first helped by the program that began in 2018 led by Sara Anderson, a Memorial Behavior Health clinician. She has helped take the program from following up with people after Springfield Police contacted her to focusing on crisis interventions alongside local officers.
“We don’t have the knowledge to solve problems like this,” said Doss, the SPD sergeant. “They do.”
If a person’s need extends beyond what the partners can provide, they are connected with organizations and services that can help.
“Our community, like many, have said, we’re not resource poor,” Anderson explained. “It’s just what we’re doing with our resources we can be lacking at times. So I think these efforts between my team and the Springfield Police Department, it’s helped really shed a light on the gaps and the areas where we do need to do things differently or evolve to address things differently.”