CESSA Bill Would Create Alternative Emergency Response System for Mental/Behavioral Emergencies


July 13, 2020 | by Emma Olson

“My Brother Would Still be Alive Today.”

Town Hall Discusses Impact of State Bill to Curb Police Violence, Offer Critical Mental/Behavioral Emergency Response to Disabled Illinoisans


Bridget Hayman

Director of Communications


(312) 640-2129

Chicago — July 13, 2020 Access Living, Chicago’s leading service and advocacy center for people with disabilities, hosted a virtual town hall this evening with impacted community members and legislators about a state bill that would create a mobile emergency response system for addressing mental and behavioral health crises while saving lives of disabled people and making better use of state services and funds.

Called the Community Emergency Services and Support Act (CESSA), the bill would fill a critical gap in Illinois’ emergency response capabilities, cut back on unnecessary lock-ups, and curb police violence, particularly in Black and brown communities. Black and brown disabled people make up at least half of those killed by police.

“If something like CESSA had existed when we needed it, my brother Stephon would still be alive today,” said one town hall participant, Renee Watts.

Watts’ family was told to call 911 to get help transporting her disabled brother to the hospital when he was acting out. The police responded when the family called, and one of the officers who came to their home shot and killed 15-year-old Stephon.

“My brother’s death illustrates a fatal flaw in the system,” said Watts.

When Illinoisans call 911 in physical distress, an ambulance is dispatched, but if they are in mental or behavioral distress, the police are sent.

“Police are taught to take control of a scene in ways that can escalate a situation involving someone in a heightened mental or behavioral state,” said Access Living’s Candace Coleman, who leads the organizing group driving the bill.

Made up of young Black and brown community organizers with disabilities, the Advance Your Leadership Power group Coleman heads worked on the bill in response to their personal experiences and what they see happening in their neighborhoods. Many members also shared their experiences at the town hall. An estimated three to 10 percent of calls to 911 in Chicago are looking for help with mental or behavioral health.

“Police shouldn’t be the first responders on these calls,” said Coleman. “People in mental or emotional crisis need professionals trained in mental and behavioral health.”

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

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-District 13) and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-District 14), who are co-sponsoring the bill, agree it’s time for change.

“This kind of mobile service has been successful in other states, ensuring disabled people get services they need, removing police from situations where they’re not needed, and ultimately shifting funds to where they can be the most effective,” said Peters.

One study of Oregon’s program, which served as a model for Illinois’ CESSA bill, found that mobile crisis intervention services reduced inpatient hospitalization costs by 79 percent over a six month period following each crisis episode.  Another study, looking only at initial expenses, found a 23 percent savings.

“We have ambulances for physical health emergencies, so we should have an equivalent to respond to mental and behavioral health emergencies,” said Cassidy.

Other town hall participants included AYLP members S’fya Eshe and Curtis Harris.

NOTE: Residents of Illinois can ask their Illinois State Legislators to support CESSA at this link.

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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.