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As part of their recent in-service training, all officers in the Evanston Police Department attended a session called ”Police as Mental Health Allies,” created and delivered for them by staff members from Connections for the Homeless and Housing Options for the Mentally Ill. Sergeant Dennis Leaks, who manages the EPD’s Office of Professional Standards and is a Board member of Connections, worked with the agencies to make the two-hour training available in March.

“We wanted to respond now to the need for this training, both because of all the issues happening throughout the country, and because of the large number of people who are mentally ill living in our community,” Sgt. Leaks said. “The crisis-intervention training provided by Cook County is currently full, so we looked to the resources right here in Evanston to help us out.”

Delivered by Jennifer Feuer-Crystal of Connections and Kristin Johanns of Housing Options, the training focused on recognizing symptoms of mental illness and responding to those symptoms in a trauma-informed way that will help people move forward instead of re-traumatizing them.

Sgt. Leaks said some police training focuses on efficiency and effectiveness, which can lead to impatience. Through the Mental Health Allies training, officers explored practical ways to exercise patience, facilitate productive interactions, and encourage people with mental illness to seek resources that can help them.

 “This training was a great opportunity for the Evanston Police officers to learn more about mental illness and to be able to shift perspectives and understand what someone in a mental health crisis may be experiencing and feeling,” said Ms. Johanns.

“The feedback from the officers was great, and it seems that they were able to take away a few new approaches or techniques to use when interacting with residents experiencing mental health symptoms,” she added.

Not only did the training cover the symptoms of different mental illnesses in the sessions, but it helped officers to understand what people with mental illness might experience and how they might behave.

As an example, Ms. Feuer-Crystal said, “We did an activity where officers tried to listen to and answer questions while simultaneously hearing voices similar to what someone with schizophrenia might hear. They found it very difficult and saw how an officer’s behavior with someone experiencing auditory hallucinations could make it easier or more difficult for that person to focus and participate in a conversation.”

Sgt.  Leaks, who was first trained in crisis intervention a decade ago, said he sees the recent training as just the beginning. Over the next year, the Department expects to have all officers attend a more in-depth, 40-hour Crisis Intervention training that Sheriff Tom Dart of the Cook County Department of Corrections has arranged. 

“We deal with people with mental illness all the time,” said Sgt. Leaks. “This training isn’t important just because we’re obligated to do it. This training makes us better officers, and it’s good for us and the people we encounter every day.”

Police Chief Richard Eddington told the RoundTable, “The Evanston Police Department remains committed to working with our mental health partners to provide exceptional services to this population, both in times of crisis and everyday events where the police may be called.

“We value our relationships with Connections for the Homeless and Housing Options for the Mentally Ill. Their efforts are invaluable in providing assistance to individuals who find themselves in both of these categories, which is far too often.”