The taskforce behind the Oak Park Community Safety Project has been working for months exploring alternative response for mental health-related calls to police. Through education sessions, public engagement sessions, private working sessions, the taskforce has studied several different response models, the needs of the Oak Park community and the challenges of changing a system so ingrained in the mindset of citizens. 

This process will culminate in the giving of recommendations to the Oak Park village manager, but for now, those recommendations are still in draft form. Taskforce co-chair Cheryl Potts gave Wednesday Journal a preview of what may be in store – with a caveat.

“We haven’t gotten full input yet, so we don’t want to put anything out there that is off the mark,” Potts said. “We want to make sure that any recommendations we make are fully vetted by many different areas of our community before we make those recommendations to the village manager.”

The taskforce has studied alternative response models employed in other areas of the country. In some instances new personnel are embedded within police departments and other models which don’t utilize police at all. In embedded models, the police departments hire social workers or outreach individuals. Potts did not say what kind of model the taskforce intended to recommend. 

“Minimizing the utilization of police was a big priority for us,” she said.

The taskforce studied the experience of two communities, Denver and Eugene, Ore., which use an outreach model and an embedded model respectively, according to the Oak Park Public Library’s taskforce representative Rob Simmons.

“We’re learning a lot about those models,” Simmons said at the library board’s Feb 28 meeting.

The taskforce has since analyzed the benefits and drawbacks of the different types of response models, including the Oak Park Police Department’s partnership with Thrive Counseling Center. Several of the taskforce’s members are Thrive personnel.

It is likely the taskforce will present the final recommendations at the end of this month. As of right now, the draft recommendations can be broken down into four categories: peer utilization, community education, continued police crisis intervention training, follow-up and village accountability. 

Peer utilization, according to Potts, involves engaging certified recovery support specialists. These individuals have lived experience with mental health conditions and go through a state-certification process where they learn de-escalation techniques. The taskforce is going beyond that to make sure the response to mental health crises employs adequate representation, as the field of mental health is very white and female.

“That is not representative of who seeks treatment,” said Potts.

On top of looking at mental health responses from a racially and gender equitable standpoint, the taskforce is also employing a lens of neurodiversity. Not all mental health crises are the same nor are the people experiencing them, so employing a one-size-fits-all model is ineffective.

“A crisis for someone who has dementia is very different from someone who has suicidal ideation,” said Potts. “Being able to have the appropriate response and that diversity of response is important.”

Equally important is community education regarding mental health crises. The suicide and crisis hotline, 988, is available to call during such moments, but not everyone is aware of its existence. Instead, those people just call 911, initiating a police response. Additionally, the community education component will likely include teaching the general public how to identify when a person is experiencing a crisis of mental health.

There will likely still be instances when it won’t be easily discernible whether someone should call 988 or 911. In those moments, it is important to have a police officer be continuously trained in crisis intervention. 

“Let’s say it’s a burglary, but it ended up not being a burglary. It’s someone who’s disoriented and is wandering around the building trying to get back into their unit,” Potts said. “But someone calls the cops thinking it’s a burglary. We want the cops to be able to respond to that appropriately.”

A mental health crisis does not necessarily end after a response has been dispatched, as Potts noted, so the taskforce will also be recommending post-crisis follow-up. The taskforce is still determining what those procedures will entail. 

The final draft recommendation is village accountability in the form of aggregate data collection, which should be presented routinely to the public. This will help to determine the effectiveness of the alternate response model.

“We want to see the data – what are the types of calls that we’re getting, who is responding, how were they resolved?” Potts said.

The development of the alternative response model has been broken into two phases, the first of which is being handled by this taskforce, which is also known as the Mental Health Taskforce. As the taskforce’s name might suggest, the focus of phase one is specifically related to developing alternative response to mental health calls. Phase two, which hasn’t begun, will tackle how to respond to other calls to police that do not require an armed response but are not mental health-related, such as calls reporting a rabid raccoon.   

Potts, the executive director of Oak Park Township’s Community Mental Health Board, co-chairs the Mental Health Taskforce with Allison Davenport, the CEO of Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park. Along with them, the taskforce consists of superintendents of local schools, health professionals and representatives from Oak Park taxing bodies and social service organizations. The chiefs and deputy chiefs of Oak Park’s fire and police departments also attend task force meetings, which are not subject to the Open Meetings Act. Some sessions, however, have been open to the public and are available to watch online.

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