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4 Illinois police departments to deploy mental health professionals after Pritzker signs new public safety bills

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Wednesday, May 11, 2022  |  Article  |  Ben Szalinski

Police departments in Waukegan, Peoria, Springfield and East St. Louis will soon each have a mental health professional on their police force to assist on calls where a mental health response may be more appropriate than a law enforcement response.

 

Gov. JB Pritzker signed three bills Tuesday that were a part of a series of public safety bills lawmakers passed in the final days of the spring session. Pritzker signed HB4736 creating the co-responder pilot program at the four police departments, HB3863 to create the Law Enforcement Recruitment and Retention Fund to give grants to police departments to hire and retain officers, and HB2985 to create a fund to pay up to $10,000 of funeral expenses for children killed by gun violence.  

 

Related: With spotlight on crime, lawmakers close session by sending bipartisan public safety bills to the governor  

 

“There are those that would like for us to believe that you have to choose between police or community,” Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (R-Peoria) said at a news conference in Peoria Tuesday. “And I believe that that is a failed notion. Police are community. The community needs the police.”  

 

Gordon-Booth led a public safety working group in the House throughout the spring session to come up with legislation addressing concerns about public safety and dwindling numbers at Illinois police departments. Gordon-Booth was also the leader behind the bill establishing co-responder programs at some Illinois police departments. 

 

“We are now stepping into a new era of policing in the city of Peoria that has not been seen before,” Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria said. “Policing is not only about making arrests or writing somebody a citation. It is also about implementing policies and procedures that provide options to give people the help they need in a more empathetic manner.”  

 

Echevarria said he approached Gordon-Booth with the idea of creating a co-responder program so police resources could be directed toward law enforcement calls and people who need mental health assistance can interact with the right person. 

 

The Peoria Police Department received more than 2,000 calls for suicidal people or others suffering mental health crises in 2021, Echevarria said.  

 

“Looking at the data in Peoria, I knew we needed to evaluate how we were going to respond to those in the community experiencing emotional distress and/or experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis,” Echevarria said.  

 

He said the new law creates “alternatives to arrest” for Peoria residents suffering from mental health crises.  

 

The bill also enacts the Violent Crime Witness Protection Act, which received $20 million of funding in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget to financially support and keep safe people who are witnesses to crimes. 

 

Pritzker also highlighted the bills that attempt to help police departments hire and retain more officers. 

 

“Today’s legislation will ensure that our officers are given the resources that they need to best serve our communities, ensuring that salary constraints don’t hold back responsible officers from a life of service,” Pritzker said.  

 

Crime issues in Illinois have been the subject of election year squabbling as Republicans accuse Democrats of not supporting the police or doing enough to reduce crime numbers. Republicans reluctantly supported the bills in the General Assembly but said they didn’t do enough to address crime. 

 

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton said Tuesday the objective of the bills Pritzker signed is to improve community health and safety by ensuring community organizations, residents and the police all have the tools they need to work together. 

 

“It’s more than just the figures reported in the headlines,” Stratton said. “Behind each of those numbers is a person…Justice is more than police, jail and prisons. Justice is also recognizing that safe communities are healthy communities where resources for mental health needs are embedded in the anti-violence work.”