Following up on his call to create health response teams as a way to limit police involvement in emergency calls involving those suffering from mental health issues or undergoing other non-criminal crises, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel has sent a letter to Illinois Gov. J.B Pritzker, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside) asking them to support legislation to make those teams – and funding for them — a reality.

In his Aug. 28 letter, Weitzel stated that police are not always adequately prepared to address situations involving psychiatric patients or those in need of mental health evaluations.

“We need to do more than just transport people to area hospitals for psychiatric evaluations,” Weitzel wrote. “That itself is a revolving door.”

In a telephone interview last week, Weitzel said that even if there’s no interest in pursuing legislation at this time, perhaps the governor could enlist a blue-ribbon panel of police, fire/EMS and health professionals to craft a strategy that could result in action statewide.

“I believe the general public will support the funding of [such a program],” Weitzel said.

Weitzel pointed as an example of the value of health response teams to a case revealed last week involving 41-year-old Daniel Prude, a Chicago resident, who died after being released from police custody in Rochester, New York, in March.

Prude, who reportedly suffered acute mental health and drug problems, died of asphyxia after being hooded, pinned to the ground and handcuffed by about a half dozen police officers who responded to a 911 call from Prude’s brother seeking help for Daniel.

After being pinned to the ground for about three minutes, Prude reportedly had stopped breathing; paramedics performed CPR at the scene to restart his heart. Prude died in a hospital after a week on life support. The county medical examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide.

“It’s obviously something that clearly needs to change,” Weitzel said.

Zalewski said he supported the idea of crisis response teams as an alternative to sending police to handle calls involving mental health issues.

“It’s well worth discussing and putting forth as a policy proposal in the broader discussion on police reform and accountability,” Zalewski said in an email to the Landmark. “I see it having two [areas] of value: helping de-escalate situations where police must respond to a person suffering from mental illness, and potentially freeing up police manpower resources so that they can be more flexible in responding to criminal activity.”

Crisis response teams are not a new idea, but they may now be getting a broader look after a summer of protest nationwide against police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hand of Minneapolis police in May and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha in August.

Reporter Juliet Isselbacher examined the concept of mental health crisis response teams in a July 29 article in the online healthcare journal Stat.

Isselbacher pointed to a Eugene, Oregon, program called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), which has existed since 1989, and a new initiative in Denver called Support Team Assisted Response (STAR).

CAHOOTS is run by an organization called the White Bird Clinic and funded in part by the Eugene Police Department. STAR is funded by the Caring for Denver Foundation and has been rolled out as a pilot program.

Both employ crisis teams consisting of a paramedic and a mental health professional who are dispatched to respond to calls, according to Isselbacher, for “welfare checks, emergency counseling, suicide assessments or nonviolent conflict resolution.” Those teams also can connect patients with resources they need.

While there are times the crisis response teams need police assistance, more often than not they operate without it. According to Isselbacher’s report, in 2019 CAHOOTS responded to 24,000 calls but only requested police backup 150 times.

The issue of funding crises response teams is central to their effectiveness, which is why Weitzel has asked for state government’s help. But there could be other sources of funding, Weitzel acknowledged, including direct local funding or something like diverting police seizure funds toward such a program.

“These calls are taking more and more of our time,” Weitzel said. “We need to find a way for true mental health professionals to respond, instead of police.”