Calls involving mentally ill on rise, police say
URBANA — With community resources for the mentally ill in decline statewide, local police say they are trying to fill gaps they are not equipped to handle.
The number of times Urbana police have been called to deal with people with mental or behavioral problems has tripled in two years, Sgt. Joel Sanders told the city council on Monday night, from 163 in 2011 to 450 last year.
And those are just the cases police have documented — Sanders said he would not be surprised if the real numbers were twice that high.
While that number rises, Sanders said the options available to officers are disappearing. State funding for mental health services has been cut by more than $101 million since 2008, he said. Mental health facilities are closing, and there are fewer community-based resources available.
"Like it or not, police officers are becoming social workers," Sanders said.
The city council held a special session Monday night to hear about the gaps in the system. There was little discussion of solutions, although Mayor Laurel Prussing said the conversation would not end with the close of the night's meeting.
Sanders, the coordinator of what's known as the Champaign County Crisis Intervention Team, said state officials estimate there are more than 500,000 people in Illinois with severe mental illnesses, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates the state's public mental health system provides service to only 19 percent of those who need it.
The Crisis Intervention Team is made up of officers with Champaign County's largest police agencies — Champaign, Urbana, Rantoul, the University of Illinois and the Champaign County sheriff — who have specialized training in dealing with people with mental or behavioral issues.
There are about 20 trained Urbana police officers, and some city council members said they would like to see that number grow. Sanders said those officers arrive on a call with a different perspective; they may look at it as a psychological issue as opposed to a criminal issue.
Those officers assist other departments when the other agency does not have a crisis intervention officer available.
"We need to get CIT officers interacting with these individuals," Sanders said. "We need to get them on scene."
But that training still falls well short of solving the problem. Sanders said the goal of Monday night's presentation to the city council — largely an overview of the Crisis Intervention Team — was to start a conversation about the lack of resources and providers ready to offer help for people with psychological issues.
"People are amazed at how little we have," Sanders said. "People think we have all these resources, but we don't."
That creates a lot of problems for police officers when they are called to deal with someone who has mental or behavioral issues. Often the only three options a police officer has are to bring that person to a hospital, to jail or do nothing.
Further complicating the situation is that legal issues often prevent hospitals from accepting a patient who does not want to be there. And Sanders said jailing is not a long-term solution for mentally ill offenders who likely will run into the same problems after they are released.