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Pilot program to send mental health professionals with law officers in 4 Illinois communities

Gov. JB Pritzker takes questions at a news conference after signing a public safety measure Tuesday in Peoria.

Budget included $10 million for programs in Peoria, Springfield, East St. Louis, Waukegan

Police departments in four communities in Illinois will be part of a co-responder pilot program that aims to send social workers and mental health professionals on law enforcement calls.

That was part of House Bill 4736, a measure signed into law Tuesday by Gov. JB Pritzker in Peoria, one of the four communities in the pilot program along with Waukegan, Springfield and East St. Louis.

Peoria Police Chief Eric Echevarria said he approached Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, about a co-responder program after reviewing 2021 call data. He said Peoria police responded to 1,247 calls that involved a possible suicidal person, 978 calls that involved a person with a history of mental illness and 468 that involved a person with cognitive impairment.

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

The program would send social workers along with law enforcement on certain calls with a primary focus on victim assistance, as well as diversion from the criminal justice system.

Responsibilities would include connecting victims with social services, providing guidance for receiving orders of protection and filing police reports, working with police investigators within confidentiality laws, and providing guidance to families of juveniles who have been arrested.

The Fiscal Year 2023 budget signed into law last month provides $10 million for the pilot programs this year. It would need a reallocation of funding each year and would expire in 2029.

Gordon-Booth, who lost her 22-year-old son to gun violence in 2014, said programs like the co-responder model are aimed at bettering the community’s relationship with law enforcement.

“The state is stepping up to say we know this is a challenge, we know that you need the mental health support, the behavioral health support. We want to be there and we want to walk with you every step of the way,” she said.

Gov. JB Pritzker said the program was part of a broader response to “the scourge of violence that infects communities and neighborhoods and blocks and families.”

“So today we're launching a victim centered co-responder pilot program to pair victims and witnesses with social workers who will provide survivors with trauma-informed crisis intervention services, community resources for mental and behavioral health treatment and empathetic advocacy,” Pritzker said.

While Republicans have criticized Democrats for leniency in sentencing and attacked the majority party as soft on crime, Pritzker pointed to investments in two Illinois State Police crime labs and other technologies to aid investigations, such as expressway cameras.

“You've got to give police the tools that they need to go arrest the right people, and make sure that we can put them in prison,” he said.

HB 4736 also renames the Gang Crime Witness Protection Act as the Violent Crime Witness Protection Act, expanding it to fund emergency relocation expenses, lost wage assistance, security deposits for rent and utilities and more.

The financial assistance program would go online in January 2023 and the FY 23 budget included $30 million to implement the program.

HB 4736 also created a tip hotline grant program overseen by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority that would fund organizations or units of local government to establish anonymous tip hotlines that provide cash rewards for tips that lead to an arrest.

The budget included $1 million for grants to start such hotlines where they don’t already exist.

The measure would also require the Illinois State Police Division of Academy and Training to train homicide investigators in victim-centered, trauma-informed investigation, beginning in July 2023.

The plan would also create a crime reduction task force to study violence prevention measures and report back to the governor and General Assembly by March 1, 2023.

The measure passed 40-17 in the Senate on a partisan roll and 109-2 in the House.

Pritzker also signed House Bill 3863, which would direct the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board to award grants to local governments, public higher education institutions and qualified nonprofits for the purpose of hiring and retaining officers.

Grants would be prioritized to “underserved areas” and for efforts to achieve “demographic and geographic diversity” of law officers. Lawmakers dedicated $10 million to ILETSB to focus on the grant program in the FY 23 budget.

He also signed House Bill 2895 which would allow the Department of Human Services to directly pay funeral expenses of children murdered due to gun violence, rather than having their families wait for reimbursement.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Jerry Nowicki is bureau chief of Capitol News Illinois and has been with the organization since its inception in 2019.
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