State bill could mean police tactics focused on mental health

Published: Feb. 14, 2022 at 6:56 PM CST
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PEORIA (25 NEWS) - Peoria Police could soon be armed with a new tool to fight crime across the city: mental health awareness.

Illinois House bill 5319 proposes the creation of the ‘Police Plus Mental Health Emergency Response Pilot.’ It’s a collaboration between State Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria, and UnityPoint Health. Together, they’ve developed a co-responder model for calls that involve a mental health crisis. A special team of officers would hold follow-up visits for survivors of violent crimes, plus give them resources like help with safe housing and counseling.

Leaders say they’re excited about the changes it could bring.

“We want to find the resources, we want to find the ways to get our community to help for needs when we talk about mental and behavioral health and understand it,” says Chief Echevarria.

During his time serving on the Elgin, Illinois police force, Echevarria was involved in the development of a program similar to this one. It was a project that sent officers to places as far as New York City and the U.K. for research before formally introducing it in 2019.

According to Elgin Police Chief Ana Lalley, the process now has a proven track record of success for their officers.

“The ultimate goal is to provide services to the community where you’re addressing some of the long-term issues with long-term solutions, and making sure that everybody has a voice in that, and that whatever the specialized needs of each person and customized needs of each person are addressed,” she says.

Because of the success of the Elgin project, Echevarria reached out to UnityPoint to create a similar task force. It’s a fully local effort that could reach farther than just Peoria. President of UnityPoint Health/UnityPlace Mary Sparks-Thompson feels their efforts could become a model for other communities.

“I would envision this being a very successful model here,” she says, “one that community would want to emulate specific to their needs.”.

Sparks-Thompson adds it’s a good way to help police respond to situations where mental health training is required. That sentiment is shared in local community groups.

“It’ll give them an eye-opener,” says Dr. Dawn Harris Jeffries, President of the Tri-County Urban League. “Perhaps they will approach someone who may have done wrong or done something wrong in a different manner and an empathetic manner.”

It’s unknown how much the program will cost at this time, but the bill was recently introduced in the House of Representatives. If approved, it could take effect later this year, no later than six months after signing.

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