Suburban Chicago police departments now equipped with therapists when responding to calls
Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Fox 32 Chicago
by Dane Placko
BLUE ISLAND, Ill. - They are often the most dangerous situations that police go into: responding to a call involving someone dealing with a mental health or substance addiction crisis.
Now, an innovative new program by the Cook County Sheriff's Office essentially puts a medical professional in the back pocket of every officer responding to a mental health crisis.
It was a lifesaver for 19-year-old Jordon Sumlin, who suffered a mental health meltdown in December of 2020. She had been tossed out of her home and into the back of an ambulance after a tense encounter with Cook County Sheriff's Police.
"When (police) got there, I was already escalated and frustrated," Sumlin remembers. "Just because I don’t get along with the police at all. One of the officers brought a laptop or an iPad and they basically introduced me to Ellie."
Police bodycam video shows the moment Sumlin connected with a clinical therapist via Zoom.
"Have you ever had someone that you could talk to about new ways to cope with the trauma?" asked clinical therapist Ellie Petacque Montgomery.
"No. I just really do it myself," Sumlin responded.
"We were able to get (Sumlin) in the ambulance and calm her down. I spoke to her on the tablet," recalls Montgomery, who is the director of the Cook County Sheriff’s Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program.
Sheriff's police out in the field can call a team of about a dozen therapists 24/7 when they encounter a situation involving mental illness or substance abuse and need the help of a mental health professional to de-escalate a potentially explosive situation.
"We get an opportunity as clinicians to see them face-to-face, to assess through this tablet, get a better idea of what the heck’s going on," Montgomery said. "It’s been really effective. We continue to see our officers get more and more comfortable using this tool. Our clients are very comfortable using the tool. They’re used to having a tablet."
After trialing the program for about a year, the sheriff’s office is now offering the service to suburban police departments, including Oak Lawn and Blue Island.
Blue Island Police Chief Geoffery Farr knows all too well the danger of responding to someone in crisis. In 2014, Farr’s eye-socket was broken by a mentally ill man off his meds and threatening to burn his house down.
"When I heard about this program, I immediately thought of the months that I was off work, the pain I was in, medication I had to take and the surgeries I had, and I don’t want anyone else going through that," Farr said.
Blue Island officers are now one Zoom call away from connecting a therapist to someone who doesn’t want to talk to police.
"That would mean we arrest less people, which is a good thing," Farr said. "It also means the court system is not as much burdened, potentially even the jail system."
And it’s not a one-and-done encounter. The therapists continue to work with many of the patients like Sumlin, or help find a program that meets their needs.
"I’ve never seen anything like it before," Sumlin said. "But when they started telling me, ‘oh this is what this is,' I talk to her and maybe I’ll try it. And it ended up working and I’m still working with them today."
Including Blue Island and Oak Lawn, the program is now available to about 200,000 Cook County residents.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart says his officers are now responding to more than 3,000 mental health calls a year — a number which he says is growing during the pandemic.
"Who else can get there immediately? We're always going there with a doctor in our back pocket," said Dart.