How CESSA Came to Be: AYLP's Influences


CESSA is the brainchild of young Black and brown disability advocates involved with Access Living’s Advance Your Leadership Power (AYLP) community organizing group. AYLP wanted to fight the widespread criminalization of people who experienced mental health crises. Just like police are not appropriate care providers for people experiencing a heart attack, police are not appropriate care providers for people experiencing a mental health crises.

AYLP members were also influenced by the experience of Stephon Watts, a Calumet City high school student for whom the bill is also named. AYLP recognized the similarity of Stephon’s experience and the experience of many other individuals with disabilities who died during police actions.

Early versions of CESSA asked the State to set up mobile mental health response teams to take the place of police responders. AYLP hoped to create an Illinois program modeled on the Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon, instead of other models that rely more heavily on police.

Before CESSA passed, the State made the decision to begin providing mobile response teams when it transitioned to the federal 988 mental health hotline. That left one major piece of AYLP’s vision to complete: Illinois still needed a system to allow people calling 911 to also have access to the 988 mobile responders.

CESSA is that final piece of AYLP’s vision. Under CESSA, calls to 911 for behavioral or mental health support are required to be transferred to Illinois’ 988 hotline for a possible mobile response team. 

Other AYLP Influences

Deaths similar to the death of Stephon Watts also influenced AYLP’s decision to advocate for mobile mental health services separate from police. The following deaths convinced AYLP that Stephon’s situation was far from unique and that AYLP should advance structural changes designed to remove police from situations that only required mental health support.

1.  LaQuan McDonald
Condition: PTSD / Complex Mental Health
Agency: Chicago Police Department
Year of Incident: 2014

Brief Description: Laquan was a 17-year-old African American youth shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. According to reports, police confronted Laquan because he was observed walking down the street behaving erratically. Police initially claimed that Laquan was carrying a knife and that he refused to drop or surrender it. This was later disproved when dash-cam footage of the incident was released. The footage instead revealed Officer Van Dyke opening fire as Laquan was walking away. This case confirmed AYLP’s moral and ethical concerns about the treatment of minorities by police.

2. Quintonio LeGrier
Condition: Mental Illness
Agency: Chicago Police Department
Year of Incident: 2015

Brief Description: Quintonio was a 19-year-old African American man killed by Chicago Police Officer Robert Rialmo when Rialmo responded to a 911 domestic violence call. On the morning of December 26th, 2015, Quintonio had been arguing with his biological father and mother concerning his withdrawal from Northern Illinois University. Quintonio called the police three times that morning telling the dispatcher that someone was threatening his life and requesting police assistance. Officer Rialmo claimed that Quintonio, armed with a baseball bat, swung at him twice, and Rialmo opened fire. Quintonio was fatally shot, as was 55 year-old Bettie Jones, Quintonio’s neighbor.

3. Freddie Gray
Condition: Developmental Disability
Agency: Baltimore Police Department
Year of Incident: 2015

Brief Description: Freddie was a 25-year-old African American who Baltimore Police Department arrested and loaded in a police vehicle for transport to a nearby police station.  During transport, Freddie suffered a severe and critical neck injury. The cause of this injury is disputed, but evidence shows that police failed to seat belt Freddie in the vehicle even though they handcuffed him and shackled his feet. Later, during transport Freddie asked for help and his appeals for assistance were not granted. By the time they reached the station officers found Freddie unresponsive in the back of the wagon. Police requested a medic, who determined that Freddie was in cardiac arrest and was “critically and severely injured.” A week later Freddie died from his injuries.

According to a report published by the Ruderman Family Foundation almost half of people killed by police have a disability. The stories of Stephon Watts, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, and Quintonio LeGrier demonstrate the impact of this statistic on individual lives.