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Chicago Lawmakers Push To Build Team Of Emergency Responders Who Aren’t Police

The proposed legislation would expand the city’s public mental healthcare system using funds reallocated from the police budget.

Protesters outside Chicago City Hall in October 2019.(United Working Families via Facebook)

In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, 2015, Antonio LeGrier called 911 and told the dispatcher his son had a baseball bat and was trying to break into his bedroom. Chicago Police Officer Robert Rialmo and his partner went to LeGrier’s building, where he lived on the upper floor. 

When the officers arrived, Antonio’s 19-year-old son Quintonio LeGrier came down the stairs to the first floor. He swung the bat twice at Rialmo, but missed, according to Rialmo’s account. However, in his first statement he did not say LeGrier had swung the bat, only that he ordered LeGrier to drop the bat, according to the Chicago Tribune

Rialmo backed down the steps toward the walkway, according to the Police Board’s report. When he was at the bottom of the steps, he unholstered his gun, according to the report. He fired seven to eight shots, hitting and killing LeGrier and Bettie Jones, who lived on the first floor and was standing nearby. Rialmo claimed that at the time he began shooting, LeGrier had stopped swinging the bat and was about eight to ten feet away. 

No criminal charges were filed. Last year, Rialmo was fired for the shooting. 

In the year before his death, LeGrier, a student at Northern Illinois University, had been experiencing mental health problems, according to the Chicago Tribune. That spring, he allegedly hit an employee when she asked for his identification in a dorm cafeteria, the Tribune reported. “Do you know who I am?” he told an officer who tried to arrest him after the incident. “I am God.”

That September, he allegedly chased a student, according to the Tribune. While police waited for medics, LeGrier yelled, “I am God!” and “I am in outer space!” He was involuntarily admitted to a local hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, the Tribune reported.

Chicago Alderperson Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez invoked LeGrier’s death in proposed legislation to expand the city’s public mental healthcare system, using funds taken from the Chicago Police Department budget. 

“The CPD’s responses to mental health crises have proven fatal in many instances, including cases like the [death of] Quintonio LeGrier,” reads Rodriguez Sanchez’s legislation, which she introduced this month.

Her proposal, if made law, would establish the Chicago Crisis Response and Care System. Housed in the city’s Department of Public Health, teams of medical and mental health professionals would be available 24 hours a day to respond to mental health crises. 

“A lot of people have gotten harmed because we have police responding to mental health emergencies,” Rodriguez Sanchez told The Appeal. “We have police responding to homelessness. We have police responding to substance abuse issues and none of these incidents warrant the use of an armed officer. These are issues that are public health issues.”

Nationally, at least 1 in 4 people killed by police have a severe mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center’s 2015 report “Overlooked in the Undercounted: The Role of Mental Illness in Fatal Law Enforcement Encounters.” Some programs that dispatch medical professionals to people in crisis have already been implemented around the country. In the Eugene-Springfield area of Oregon, the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, founded in 1989, dispatches a medic and crisis worker to help people who are experiencing a mental health emergency. 

The Anti Police-Terror Project’s Sacramento chapter started the MH First hotline in January. In the early days of the hotline, community members could call or text the number, and mental health and medical professionals would be dispatched to intervene. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is providing support only over the phone, according to its website. In California, legislators have passed the Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems (C.R.I.S.E.S.) Act grant pilot program, which seeks to “create and strengthen community-based alternatives to law enforcement in response to crisis situations.” The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. 

Responding to people in crisis with medical professionals is one piece of Rodriguez Sanchez’s plan to strengthen the city’s public mental healthcare system. The proposed legislation would also expand the number of city-run mental healthcare clinics. In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed half of the city’s 12 clinics. One clinic was privatized in 2016, leaving the city with five public mental healthcare clinics.

“Our public mental health infrastructure is neither appropriate nor adequate to the challenges facing our city,” Rodriguez Sanchez and eight co-sponsors of her legislation wrote in a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot. 

Rodriguez Sanchez told The Appeal that she has spoken to Lightfoot about the legislation. “She said that she was open to discussion about it, so I have hopes that we will be able to start a conversation about how to create a program like this,” said Rodriguez Sanchez. The mayor’s office did not respond to The Appeal’s requests for comment.

Funds reallocated from the Chicago Police Department, including its overtime budget line, would pay for the crisis response teams and clinics, according to the proposed legislation. The department budget for 2020 is $1.76 billion, according to the Civic Federation, an Illinois-based research organization. Overtime spending for the police has increased from $42.2 million in 2011 to $139.5 million in 2019, according to Rodriguez Sanchez’s legislation.

“The only system that has consistently received investment has been the police department,” said Arturo Carrillo, director of Violence prevention and neighborhood health initiatives for Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

These efforts are part of a national movement to defund the police. In practice, this means divesting from police departments and investing in community needs, such as healthcare, housing, and education—precisely the opposite of what has been happening in recent years, said Rodriguez Sanchez.

“By design they have been underfunding and cutting,” she said. 

Employees of the crisis teams, as well as the clinics, must be “public employees that are performing their labor under a fair contract, unionized and with good pay and benefits,” she said. 

On Sept. 17, Brian Bennett spoke before a virtual city council committee meeting on the police budget. In 2018, he experienced a mental health crisis, was underinsured, and sought help from a city clinic.   

Bennett said he finally found a therapist at a city-run mental health clinic. But on the fourth visit, she told him it was his last because her position was being eliminated. She handed him a piece of paper with other clinics to try. 

“It was totally hopeless,” he told The Appeal. “Who wants to keep knocking on all these doors when every time someone answers it, they tell you they can’t help you?”

At the meeting, he implored the alderpeople to defund the police department.

“I am demanding that the $1.7 billion in the CPD be used to build, hire, and heal: flood those billions into our neighborhoods, open hospitals, hire workers, build housing,” he testified. “The thin blue line is the barrier between our current city and a truly thriving society and you keep making it thicker every year.”

The Justice Collaborative has been providing media support to the Chicago lawmakers supporting the bill. The Appeal is an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative.