Local News

Mental health co-responder program expands to suburban police

COOK COUNTY – The Oak Lawn Police Department is the first law enforcement agency to partner with a Cook County Sheriff’s Office program that enables officers to virtually connect individuals in crisis to a mental health professional, Sheriff Thomas J. Dart announced.

That suburban police department now uses electronic tablets and smartphones to immediately link individuals experiencing a mental health crisis to clinicians with the Sheriff’s Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program, an initiative intended to give officers a new tool to deescalate potentially volatile situations, as well as provide aftercare and case management for individuals who need mental health services.

“Officers will tell you that some of the most dangerous and unpredictable calls they respond to involve mental health issues,” Dart said in a statement. “This program has been an incredible tool for our officers, and we are excited to partner with Oak Lawn, which shares our commitment to promote productive and safe interactions with the people we all serve.”

Launched by Dart through the sheriff’s police late last year, CVAP is staffed by licensed mental health professionals from the Sheriff’s Treatment Response Team, and is a continuation of Dart’s vision to provide services in the community that can prevent individuals from becoming unnecessarily involved in the criminal justice system.

CVAP provides officers 24/7 access to mental health professionals who can initiate videoconferencing or a telephone call with distressed individuals within minutes. Unlike co-responder models that dispatch social workers to respond in person, CVAP enables a small team of mental health workers to provide near-instantaneous response anywhere in Cook County, and removes the chance that they may be injured. The program also can be scaled up to provide services to other law enforcement agencies.

“We understand that it may not be feasible for many municipal police departments to build similar programs, which is why we always intended for CVAP to be something we could offer to them,” Dart said. “Departments like Oak Lawn can work together with my office to enhance everyone’s ability to safely respond to and assist individuals in crisis.”

Mental health calls for service have increased steadily, and are only expected to continue to rise in the wake of the isolation and stress many people have experienced during the pandemic. In 2018, sheriff’s police responded to 1,208 calls for service involving mental health. This year, the number of such calls is on pace to exceed 1,800.

Since it began, CVAP has been used more than 70 times in cases, including four from Oak Lawn, ranging from domestic disputes to individuals experiencing a severe mental health crisis.

“The Oak Lawn Police Department is honored to be the first suburban department in Cook County to participate in the sheriff’s virtual co-responder program,” Oak Lawn Police Chief Daniel Vittorio said. “This program will provide our officers another option when responding to calls where there is a mental health issue, and the Treatment Response Team clinicians will provide our residents the help that they need.”