Legislative Victory for Disability, Racial Justice Advocates


August 25, 2021 | by Ashley Eisenmenger

Pritzker signs first statewide law limiting police involvement in emergency mental health calls

Disabled activists with lived experience drove effort to save lives


Ashley Eisenmenger

Disability Inclusion Training Specialist


August 25, 2021

CHICAGO – Today, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act (CESSA) into law, which requires emergency response operators to refer calls seeking mental and behavioral health support to a new service that can dispatch a team of mental health professionals instead of police, marking a significant change from current policy.

CESSA requires these calls be referred to the Department of the Human Services-Division of Mental Health (DMH) for immediate assistance, which can include dispatching mobile mental health units. The DMH program is set to rollout statewide no later than July 2022.

Driven by those with lived experience, and sponsored by State Sen. Robert Peters (D-District 13) and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-District 14), CESSA helps create a new approach to emergency response to fill a critical gap in Illinois’ capabilities, aiming to cut back on unnecessary lock-ups, and reduce police violence, particularly in Black and brown communities. Black and brown disabled people make up at least half of those killed by police.

“CESSA will help make sure people get services and supports instead of involving police when they’re not needed,” said Candace Coleman, racial justice community organizer at Access Living, a leading disability organization in Chicago. “This law will save lives.”

Only three to five percent of violent acts can be attributed to people living with mental illness, making police response necessary only in a small number of cases, not the majority of the time. Sadly, police response can lead to unintended tragedy.

The shooting death of 15-year-old Stephon Watts by a police officer called to his home to help transport him to his doctor, spurred community organizers with disabilities in Access Living’s community organizing group Advance Your Leadership Power to look for better ways to handle mental and behavioral health emergencies they experienced and saw happening in their neighborhoods.

CESSA is the result of their work alongside the Watts family and with the support of a dedicated team of coalition partners including: The ACLU, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Answers, Inc., the Arc of Illinois, Asian Pacific American Advocates – Greater Chicago Chapter, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), Chicagoland Autism Connection, Chicago Torture Justice Center, Chicago Women Take Action, Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4), Decarcerate BloNo, Equip for Equality, Family to Family, Family Health Center, First Defense Legal Aid, Howard Brown Health Center, Indivisible, Institute on Disability and Human Development – University of Illinois Chicago, Mental Health Summit, ONE Northside, RAMP CIL, Sinai Health System, STOP and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Chicago.

“It’s encouraging to see Illinois be the first state to take the important step of requiring a uniform response that doesn’t involve police,” said Coleman. “Today’s signing begins the process of making this a reality, and it’s time to get to work.”

Established in 1980, Access Living is a change agent committed to fostering an inclusive society that enables Chicagoans with disabilities to live fully engaged and self–directed lives. Nationally recognized as a leading force in the disability advocacy community, Access Living challenges stereotypes, protects civil rights and champions social reform.