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Mental Health Advocates Push Police for More Crisis Intervention Training

By Adeshina Emmanuel | September 11, 2014 9:42am
 Becky Brasfield gave her story of being arrested while having a mental health crisis outside police headquarters on Tuesday.
Becky Brasfield gave her story of being arrested while having a mental health crisis outside police headquarters on Tuesday.
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ONE Northside

UPTOWN — Becky Brasfield, a 36-year-old Englewood woman, said she was dispirited by a rocky post-grad job search and trapped in the throes of a psychotic episode about four years ago when she emailed death threats to a former employer.

"I was having delusions that this woman was going to hurt someone I knew," Brasfield said. "And I threatened to kill her unless she stopped."

That led to her arrest in November 2010 and five-month stay in the Cook County Jail. She remembers being in the midst of psychosis throughout her trial, at the end of which she pled guilty to felony harassment and was freed on probation without getting treatment.

Treatment finally came a month after a suicide attempt landed her in a hospital psych ward. That's when she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a serious mental illness in which schizophrenia's hallucinations and delusions intersect with bipolar disorder's mania and depression.

Brasfield said her condition was stable these days. But hopes of putting the master's degree in sociology she earned in 2009 from the University of Illinois to good use have so far been dashed, the unemployed woman said, thanks to a record marred by a felony.

She argues she might have gone into treatment rather than jail had the police who arrested her been trained to respond to people suffering mental crisis via the Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team training program, which was in its infant stages the year she was arrested.

"The officers who arrested me were not [crisis intervention]-trained officers," Brasfield said outside police headquarters this week, joined by mental health advocates and clergy demanding that the department double its crisis intervention training efforts. "The only thing that those officers knew how to do was to arrest me and put me in jail."

Mental health advocates say injuries to officers, arrests and rearrests are lessened by the program. The Cook County Sheriff's Department estimates that one-third of the 10,000 inmates in custody on any given day at Cook County Jail suffer from mental illness.

The Police Department acknowledges the importance of the training, which amounts to a 40-hour course that teaches officers how to diffuse situations involving offenders in mental health crisis and, when appropriate, find emergency mental health services for people, among other lessons.

More than 2,300 officers have the crisis training, and the Police Department trains about 200 officers a year, the department said. But organizers with Uptown-based community group ONE Northside and Unity Lutheran Church in Edgewater want police to double the training quota, citing a need in Chicago in the aftermath of the city closing numerous mental health clinics.

They say that the Police Department typically has one crisis intervention-trained officer per shift at each police district, but that that's not enough to handle dozens of calls per day at many districts related to mentally ill people.

Organizers also want police to show accountability through quarterly reports to the City Council with statistics related to training and progress within the program.

Police spokesman Marty Maloney wouldn't answer questions about the department's willingness to double its efforts or report to City Council. But Maloney praised the program in an email, saying it has received numerous local, state and national awards, "while external agencies from around the world have sought training and best practices from CPD."

Newly promoted sergeants, lieutenants, detectives and any officers working in schools are required to complete the training, which includes guidance from agencies specialized in mental health, people suffering with mental illness and their families, he said.

Maloney said the department "is widely considered a national leader on transparency, and voluntarily publishes more data than most, if not all, large police departments."

Right now, Kinsey said, the crisis intervention training "is a great program," but it should be expanded and police "should be accountable to the tax payers and to the people" by proving their efforts, he said.

Kinsey said "it makes for a lot safer neighborhoods all around Chicago," to train as many officers as possible. 

He's hoping he and other advocates can meet with Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who they delivered a letter at police headquarters this week, "and he'll get it done." 

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