Orland Park police touted a reduction in crime in its 2013 annual report, but it also drew attention to a statistic that jumped 3,450 percent in two years: the number of people police brought to hospitals or mental health facilities for evaluation for involuntary commitment.
Police Chief Tim McCarthy highlighted the rapid increase as an "area of concern" in a letter to village officials included in the report. In 2009 and 2010, Orland Park police did not seek to have anyone involuntarily committed, according to police records. There were two instances in 2011, 24 in 2012 and 71 in 2013. They are on track for even more in 2014, with 54 as of May 14.
An involuntary committal requires a court order, but police can take the first step to having someone committed if they believe the person meets the requirements and is an immediate danger to themselves or others. According to the Illinois Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code, if a police officer brings a person they believe needs immediate care to a mental health facility, they can petition to have the person held for observation for up to 24 hours to determine whether or not they should be involuntarily admitted.
Orland Park police Lt. Joseph Mitchell attributes the growth to a combination of reduced funding for mental health services and better police training on mental health concerns.
"There's less funding for services; with economic hardship there may be more people in need — it really is a perfect storm," Mitchell said.
According to a report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a mental health advocacy organization, state funding for mental health services declined more than 30 percent between the 2009 and 2012 fiscal years in Illinois. Mitchell said he believes the department is encountering more people who can't get assistance until they are in crisis.
"It's become an unfunded mandate for us since the state isn't providing care," said Mitchell, who supervises police training. "We're not psychologists or psychiatrists, but we're the ones this falls to."
Although funding has declined, the Illinois Department of Human Services has worked to make their dollars stretch further by transferring funds from institutions to community-based programs, said department spokeswoman Januari Smith. She added that when the state-run Tinley Park Mental Health Center closed in 2012, the department put $11 million toward community-based services in the area that treated more people.
It's also difficult to say whether other communities have seen increases in involuntary committals similar to Orland Park's. The state does not track the number of people police seek to have involuntarily committed, Smith said, and individual police departments vary in how they record data related to mental health.
Some suburban police departments, including Tinley Park and Aurora, said they did not record calls for service in a way that let them track involuntary committals.
Joliet police were able to provide records of the total number of times police were called to transport a person believed to be mentally ill, which ranged from 69 to 95 per year between 2009 and 2013, though it was not clear how many of those calls involved people police were bringing to a hospital for evaluation and possible involuntary commitment.
Bolingbrook police also did not track involuntary commitments but saw no major change in the number of suicide attempts or threats, which can lead to involuntary commitment, according to police records. Between 2010 and 2013, the total number of such incidents ranged from 11 to 18 a year.
Records provided by Naperville police also indicated an increase in the number of people police sought to have involuntarily committed, from 20 in 2010 to 48 in 2013. But Sgt. Brad Marsh, youth investigations supervisor, said that was likely at least partly due to changes in record-keeping and the 2010 figure likely underestimated the true number.
He attributed the rest to additional police training related to mental health. When Naperville police educate local businesses about financial crimes and ways to identify counterfeit money, they see a spike in reports — not because there's been a rash of crimes, but because people know what to look for, he said. Marsh said he suspects something similar happens as police officers grow more aware of concerns related to mental illness.
"We try to preach that as first responders, if someone is a risk to themselves or others, involuntary committal is a resource that can be used to get that person exigent care," he said.
Mitchell agreed that extra training and greater awareness may have helped drive up Orland Park's numbers.
"Maybe before, if we were asked to check on someone and they seemed OK, we'd have been more likely to walk away," Mitchell said. "But imagine if you found out later that something happened. There's a greater focus on mental health now."
During the first year the department saw a significant number of involuntary committals, 2012, the Tinley Park Mental Health Center's closing brought extra attention to mental health concerns, Mitchell said. Orland Park police worked with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Cook County State's Attorney's Office to provide additional training on indicators of mental illness and best practices for responding to calls involving people in mental crisis as well as mental health-related law and the fact that involuntary committals can be "a win for everyone," Mitchell said.
"They get to see a doctor, and it gets them off the street," he said.
In addition to providing some training for all officers, the department plans to establish a Crisis Intervention Team, a type of police unit the National Alliance on Mental Illness promotes that specializes in dealing with people in mental crisis. Crisis Intervention Teams are trained in de-escalation techniques police wouldn't use in ordinary standoff situations, but they also work with mental health professionals in the community to get people treatment instead of working strictly within the criminal justice system, said National Alliance on Mental Illness spokesman Bob Carolla.
Increased use of social media and texting may also have contributed to rising numbers, Mitchell said. "If someone tells us about a text message where the person they're concerned about made an outcry or threatened to hurt themselves, it helps us investigate," Mitchell said. "It's not a he-said-she-said situation; we can document it."
Mitchell said it's hard to evaluate the effect their efforts are having. Because of privacy concerns, police don't know how often people they bring to the hospital are involuntarily committed after the observation period or receive ongoing treatment, he said. But Mitchell said police do think they're seeing fewer cases where the same people are repeatedly in crisis.
"We're trying to take a more proactive approach. Lockup is not the place for these people. They deserve the opportunity to have treatment, not be behind bars," he said.