The task force behind the Oak Park Community Safety Project has been working for months to explore an alternative response to mental health-related calls to the police. Through education sessions, public engagement sessions, private working sessions, the task force studied several different response models, the needs of the Oak Park community, and the challenges of changing a system if rooted in the mindset of citizens.
This process will culminate in the delivery of recommendations to the Village Superintendent of Oak Park, but at this time these recommendations are still in draft form. Task force co-chair Cheryl Potts gave the Wednesday newspaper a preview of what may be in store — with one caveat.
“We haven’t received full comments yet, so we don’t want to post anything that’s off topic,” Potts said. “We want to make sure that any recommendations we make are fully vetted by many different areas of our community before making those recommendations to the Village Manager.”
The task force studied alternative response models used in other parts of the country. In some cases, new personnel are integrated into police departments and other models that do not use the police at all. In integrated models, police departments hire social workers or outreach workers. Potts did not specify what type of model the task force intended to recommend.
“Minimizing the use of the police was a big priority for us,” she said.
The task force studied the experience of two communities, Denver and Eugene, Oregon, that use an outreach model and an integrated model, respectively, according to Oak Park Public Library task force representative Rob Simmons.
“We’re learning a lot about these models,” Simmons said at the library board meeting on Feb. 28.
The task force has since analyzed the pros and cons of different types of response models, including the Oak Park Police Department’s partnership with Thrive Counseling Center. Several members of the task force are on Thrive staff.
It is likely that the working group will present the final recommendations at the end of this month. Currently, the draft recommendations can be divided into four categories: peer use, community education, ongoing police training in crisis response, monitoring and village accountability.
Peer-to-peer use, according to Potts, involves the engagement of certified recovery support specialists. These individuals have lived experience with mental health issues and go through a state certification process where they learn de-escalation techniques. The task force goes above and beyond to ensure mental health crisis response employs adequate representation, as the field of mental health is very white and feminine.
“It’s not representative of who is seeking treatment,” Potts said.
In addition to looking at mental health responses from a racial and gender-equitable perspective, the task force also uses a neurodiversity lens. Not all mental health crises are the same, and neither are the people who experience them. Using a single model is therefore inefficient.
“A seizure for someone who has dementia is very different from someone who is having suicidal thoughts,” Potts said. “Being able to have the appropriate response and that diversity of response is important.”
Community education about mental health crises is equally important. The suicide and crisis hotline, 988, is available to call during such times, but not everyone is aware of its existence. Instead, these people simply call 911, triggering a police response. Additionally, the community education component will likely include teaching the general public how to identify when a person is experiencing a mental health crisis.
There will likely still be instances where it will not be easy to discern whether someone should call 988 or 911. In those times, it is important that a police officer be continuously trained in emergency response. crisis.
“Let’s say it’s a burglary, but it’s not really a burglary. He’s someone who’s disoriented and wanders around the building trying to get back to his unit,” Potts said. “But someone called the cops thinking it was a burglary. We want the cops to be able to respond to that appropriately.
A mental health crisis doesn’t necessarily end after a response is sent, as Potts noted, so the task force will also recommend post-crisis follow-up. The working group is still determining what these procedures will entail.
The final draft recommendation is the responsibility of the village in the form of aggregate data collection, which should be presented systematically to the public. This will help determine the effectiveness of the alternative response model.
“We want to see the data – what types of calls are we getting, who answers, how were they resolved?” Potts said.
The development of the Alternative Response Model has been divided into two phases, the first of which is managed by this working group, also known as the Mental Health Working Group. As the name of the working group might suggest, the goal of the first phase is specifically related to the development of an alternative response to mental health calls. The second phase, which has not started, will address how to respond to other calls to the police that do not require an armed response but are not related to mental health, such as calls reporting a rabid raccoon.
Potts, executive director of the Oak Park Township Community Mental Health Council, co-chairs the mental health task force with Allison Davenport, CEO of Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park. Along with them, the task force consists of local school superintendents, medical professionals, and representatives from Oak Park tax agencies and social service organizations. Chiefs and deputy chiefs of the Oak Park Fire and Police Departments also attend task force meetings, which are not subject to the open meeting law. Some sessions, however, have been opened to the public and can be viewed online.