Winnebago County sheriff’s deputies and Rockford police officers will pair with mental health experts when responding to emergency psychiatric and suicidal episodes as a new approach over arrests.
Law enforcement will team with Rosecrance crisis-intervention specialists to create a three-month pilot program, beginning next month, in efforts to divert people in psychiatric crises away from the criminal justice system and into treatment instead, Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana said.
Each specially trained unit will include two officers from the city, two deputies from the county and two Rosecrance crisis response workers, according to the Rockford Register Star. The pilot program will begin Nov. 1.
“We have long acknowledged the need to quickly help individuals who are experiencing a serious mental health episode, and through this pilot program we will identify how we can truly help individuals who need professional services, not jail,” Caruana said in a news release.
Rockford Police Chief Dan O’Shea said the “co-responder model” is being adopted around the country to give law enforcement an alternative to arresting someone experiencing a psychiatric episode or contemplating suicide. After a 911 call, law enforcement would secure an emergency scene before crisis workers assess the person and develop a plan for the next step, such as a referral for counseling or transport to a mental health facility.
Calls for changing how police respond to people in the middle of a mental health crisis have mounted in recent months. Rockford officials asked for public comment following protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May after an officer pressed his knee onto the handcuffed Black man’s neck for several minutes.
Rockford police responded to 842 incidents involving suicidal or despondent people in the 12 months before Aug. 18 — an average of more than two emergency calls a day.
Dave Gomel, president of Rosecrance Health Network, said Rosecrance will help train the co-responder teams, which will include their employees, Rockford police and county deputies.
“It’s really a compassionate way, it’s a medical way and it’s the right way to work with people in behavioral health crisis,” Gomel said.