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Victim-centered emergency services to be piloted in Peoria

Peoria Police Department Chief Eric Echevarria speaks to media on Tuesday, Sept. 21.
Hannah Alani
Peoria Police Department Chief Eric Echevarria speaks to media.

A new bill plans to change how Peoria Police respond to behavioral crisis calls by adding mental health care workers to their emergency team. If it succeeds in Peoria, it has the possibility of becoming the standard statewide.

Peoria is one of four Illinois cities that will test the Co-Responder Pilot Program, once House Bill 4736 is signed into law by Gov. JB Pritzker. The other cities are Springfield, East St. Louis, and Waukegan.

The bill combines language from two previous bills sponsored by state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, with language to increase scope of the state’s Witness Protection Program by Sen. Robert Peters, D-Chicago. Peters is the Senate sponsor of HB 4736.

HB 1095, sponsored by Gordon-Booth, a Democrat from Peoria, passed through the House Judiciary committee with bipartisan support and passed through the House on April 4 with 109 yes votes, zero no votes, and one voting present.

The language of the Co-Responder Pilot Program was added to Peters’ bill on April 7.

Once signed into law, this pilot program will see police departments and emergency dispatchers sending mental health providers and social workers with police to evaluate certain emergency situations. Their primary responsibilities will be to service victims of crimes and survivors of those lost to violent crime, but additionally to intervene in the event that a person is armed or unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis.

Gordon-Booth referenced the Surgeon General’s latest report as an indication that the country is in a mental health crisis, particularly for young people after the last two years of COVID-19 disruptions.

“We are seeing a clear and present danger with the mental health challenge of young people that are currently going unaddressed. What then happens when those young people are interfacing with law enforcement?” Gordon-Booth asked.

Her answer? Provide young people and survivors of crime with the support they need, when they need it.

As passed, the Co-Responder Pilot Program does not dictate any level of required certification for the co-responders who accompany police on emergency calls. Gordon-Booth said she is working with the National Association of Social Workers, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, and other community organizations to determine whether the co-responders should be licensed social workers, survivors of crime, both, or somewhere in between.

The important thing, Gordon-Booth said, is to have that extra support on the call.

“They’ll have an extra person with that mental health background, who can certainly spot things maybe a bit quicker than maybe an officer, because we're asking our officers to be all things to all people and it's not realistic,” said Gordon-Booth.

Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria, who worked with Gordon-Booth to establish Peoria as a member of the pilot program, said he expects the program to save money and resources for emergency responders.

“Rather than taking them to an ER, for example, we bypass the ER, get them to the mental health facility that they need, help them and get them those resources. We’re saving money at the hospitals and making sure that we're not using resources that we don't need,” said Echevarria, describing possible routes for responding to a person in crisis.

Gordon-Booth spoke at an event last month hosted by Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, where she spoke about the expressed need for victim-centered services and trauma recovery in response to the state’s growing public safety concerns, rather than increased arrests and penalties.

“You can't incarcerate your way out of this. You can't prosecute your way out of this,” said Gordon-Booth.

Echevarria echoed Gordon-Booth and said this program will more effectively evaluate people in crisis than simply arresting them, as well as preventing those who witness violence crime from entering the cycle of violence by providing them with support.

“We don't need to be incarcerating people. We're not looking to put people in jail or have charges matter. We want to give them the help they need,” Echevarria said to the House Judiciary committee.

Peters and Gordon-Booth worked with other members of the General Assembly last year to pass the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act, or CESSA, which requires 911 operators to refer calls for behavioral health crises to a separate dispatcher, who will then send mental health services rather than police. This Co-Responders Pilot Program does not negate CESSA, said Gordon-Booth.

“The goal of the co-responder model is to be complementary to CESSA. We're clearly looking to serve the same population, to be able to provide better service to our constituencies. But all situations don't work for all people,” Gordon-Booth said.

HB4736 passed both chambers on April 8, the final day of session. The state budget, which also passed April 8, allocates $10 million dollars for the implementation of the Co-Responders Pilot Program. Police departments in the four test cities will have six months to establish the programs upon Pritzker’s signing, the date of which has yet to be announced.

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Maggie Strahan is a graduate student in the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois.