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Galesburg police will collaborate with a behavioral health co-responder on some calls. Here's how it will work

Galesburg IL Police Department Facebook

Police officers might not be the only people to show up to an emergency call in Galesburg. Depending on the situation, a dispatcher may also now send out a behavioral health co-responder.

The city of Galesburg is partnering up with the human services organization Bridgeway to create a new job position focused on taking the lead on the behavioral health issues encountered by police out in the community.

The Galesburg Police Department began researching the addition of a social worker to their ranks in 2019.

Stacy Brown, the vice president of behavioral health services at Bridgeway, said the behavioral health co-responder grew out of an existing partnership.

"There's been times where they've called us in to meet with these people, or to go out actually on calls with them to see if we can engage them in services. And so what we really looked at was how do we embed somebody into the police department who can do this on a regular basis?" said Brown.

The law enforcement behavioral health co-responder will be employed by Bridgeway, but work out of the Galesburg public safety building. The position is funded through a grant from the Knox County 708 Mental Health Board.

Alexis Ramirez is the first co-responder hired. He's a Knox College graduate who recently moved back to Galesburg from Chicago.

"It is pretty prominent for an individual who is experiencing some form of mental illness or psychosis to be put behind bars rather than to receive resources. And so our biggest outcome is to prevent individuals who are experiencing those mental illness days, or some form of psychosis on some days, and really help them rather than put them away," said Ramirez.

Ramirez will be paired with an officer trained in crisis intervention. When a 911 dispatcher receives a call requiring de-escalation or a behavioral health intervention, that call will be passed on to the crisis intervention officer and their behavioral health co-responder. Brown said the co-responder can then address the person's behavioral health concerns on site.

"They would go in and really work with this person," she said. "You know, do they maybe need to get a crisis evaluation and potentially go into the hospital for a little while in order to stabilize? Or can the co-responder at that time really connect to this individual with immediate services or immediate needs, so that they definitely don't have to go to the hospital?"

Galesburg Police Chief Russell Idle said those needs aren't something police officers are necessarily best equipped to handle.

"We have learned that police departments, generally speaking, are not very well trained or equipped to handle those kinds of issues. We're peacemakers and law enforcement officers and things like that. But we're not counselors, we're not social workers. We need to be able to respond to those needs when those needs arise," Idle said.

When those situations arise, Brown said that's when the co-responder can take the lead.

"The goal is really to have somebody there to help alleviate those responsibilities that they've (police) found themselves having to take on when it's really not a part of what they would normally do, or do they feel equipped to do," she said. "And so that co-responder is really that additional tool for them to be able to say, 'Hey, I've got somebody right here who can help with this.'"

Ramirez said the ultimate goal is to respond to crisis intervention situations by connecting people with resources - and avoid creating a criminal record for the person suffering from a behavioral health issue.

"We're making referrals for them, even offering hospitalization for an individual who would really want a full treatment, or at least some form of help for any type of mental health issues that they may be undergoing. I would say that the biggest takeaway would be just the prevention of of arresting individuals, as well as providing them with the necessary resources that they've been lacking," Ramirez said.

Idle said it's important not just to resolve the immediate situation via policing, but create a longer-term solution.

"As it is now - the status quo - we respond to a problem. We might separate parties or make an arrest or do something to solve the the issue that's happening at that moment, but we're not solving the underlying issues that those people are having or that that family has or the unit has, whether it's again, domestic abuse, or sexual abuse or substance abuse or, or mental problem issues, whatever it is, we're not solving that," he said. "So this social worker (is) coming in the back end and trying to provide some sort of counseling, treatment, support to those people, so that they can live a better life."

Ramirez said he'll also be able to not only address an individual's behavioral health issues, but the needs of those around them who are traumatized by the events. That may even include the officers themselves.

"I kind of wanted to make a huge point on self care. And, you know, focusing on also the co-responder or team, the things that we go through, ensuring that the officers that are also managing this type of program, on their side as well, are receiving the care that they need after seeing incidents," he said.

Ramirez said he understands some in Galesburg are skeptical about the co-responder program, but he hopes people will keep an open mind.

"I do want to reinforce the idea that this program will become successful much as I can make it. I'd say, you know, when it comes to a project or a program, I don't like stopping until it's entirely complete," Ramirez said.

Ramirez said he's currently going on ride-alongs with police and starting to build a rapport with people frequently interacting with law enforcement.

A law enforcement behavioral health co-responder model is already implemented in many Illinois cities, including Elgin.

Legislation introduced by state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth would create a co-responder position in Peoria.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.