Daily Herald opinion: Schaumburg police's mental health unit will take police work beyond law enforcement
It's hard to take seriously anyone who contends communities should literally "defund" their police. But the merits of reevaluating police work and deploying resources more effectively have long deserved attention and study.
To that end, the Schaumburg Police Department is about to become the only one in the suburbs to use a first mobile response unit for crisis situations or other calls involving mental health issues or substance misuse. And if the federally funded pilot works, Schaumburg's experience may clear the way for more such "policing" throughout our communities.
Schaumburg Police Chief Bill Wolf says his department already has three social workers on staff, and this experience -- funded by a $340,000 federal grant secured with help from U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi -- will add at least one newly hired social worker working alongside a village police officer.
"This is a way for us to get out in the community," Wolf told our staff writer Eric Peterson for a story this week. "We're basically looking at people who are in crisis. Our goal is to have the social workers dealing directly with the people who are in crisis immediately."
Suburban police officers undergo training for a wide range of potential encounters, but dealing with drug addicts and people suffering from diverse mental illnesses can require a level of expertise that goes deeper than can reasonably be expected of police, whose first responsibility is to protect the public and who encounter so many diverse emergencies. Using social workers alongside police in mental health emergencies can help ensure that volatile situations don't escalate and that troubled individuals aren't merely controlled but are helped. It's a philosophy that recognizes protecting public safety goes beyond merely enforcing laws.
Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson says the approach already is producing benefits in his community through its Elk Grove Village Cares opioid addiction outreach program. The initiative is one of several community-based efforts that will partner with Schaumburg police, including the Start Here Addiction Rehabilitation and Education program of Hoffman Estates, the Kenneth Young Center in Elk Grove Village and the Live4Lali addiction treatment effort in Arlington Heights.
Johnson called the Schaumburg police's mental health unit "a phenomenal step forward," and we're inclined to agree.
Programs like this are by no means a suggestion that police departments aren't up to the tasks put before them. Indeed, Schaumburg's Wolf notes that police, therapists and social workers all have learned from each other by working together.
With its new mental health unit, the Schaumburg Police Department will build on such experiences in ways that may well help show how public safety and individual health outcomes can improve by thoughtfully redefining and enhancing police work, not impulsively and vaguely defunding it.