Credit: Photo by Grace Donnelly

When Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart appointed Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia to run the county jail, his office touted the psychologist as ideally suited to lead “the largest mental health institution in the country.”

Jail officials estimate that of about 9,000 inmates held on any given day, between 25 to 35 percent are living with mental illness. They are often arrested for drug use and so-called “crimes of survival” like petty theft and panhandling.

Police respond to thousands of 911 calls a year, often resulting in jail time for people with mental illness, according to a recent investigation by The Chicago Reporter. Communities of color are heavily affected. A lack of mental health resources has created a pipeline from neighborhoods on the South and West sides to the county jail. The county jail inmate population is about 73 percent African-American and 16 percent Latino.

In 2014, police responded to about 22,000 mental-health crisis calls, according to the Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Forty-four percent of the calls came from predominantly black police districts, 30 percent from Latino districts and 26 percent from white districts. Seven of the 10 police districts with the most mental health-related 911 calls were in predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides, according to the office. Of the three remaining districts, two were on the North Side and one was in the Loop.

A University of Illinois-Chicago professor and a team of researchers are halfway through a five-year federal study examining how police handle mental health calls, and how the civilians they encounter fare afterward.

Researcher Amy Watson said the reasons people call police, and who calls police, varies by community. Watson said in communities on the South and West sides families “don’t have too many places to call for help.” As a result, police are often called when there is a crisis involving a relative.

Watson said panhandling is a likely reason for police encounters with people with mental illness in the Loop, a busy commercial and residential area in the heart of the city, while homelessness may drive arrests in Uptown.

About 33 percent of homeless people in Chicago suffer from a severe mental illness, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Parts of the predominately white North Side, particularly Uptown in the Town Hall District, have a high concentration of homeless services and single-room occupancy hotels considered housing of last resort, “so people have migrated there,” which results in more calls, Watson said.


District 2014 Calls Primary Neighborhoods Served by District District Population Racial Majority
Town Hall District (19th) 1,381 Uptown, Lakeview, North Center White
South Chicago (4th) 1,342 South Deering, South Chicago, Avalon Park, Calumet Heights, Burnside, East Side, Hegewisch Black
Englewood (7th) 1,280 Englewood, West Englewood Black
Chicago Lawn (8th) 1,242 Chicago Lawn, Ashburn, West Lawn,West Elsdon, Archer Heights, Garfield Ridge, Gage Park, Clearing Latino
Gresham (6th) 1,194 Auburn Gresham, Chatham Black
Rogers Park (24th) 1,128 Rogers Park, West Ridge White
Harrison (11th) 1,105 West Garfield Park, East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park Black
Grand Crossing (3rd) 1,057 Greater Grand Crossing, Woodlawn, South Shore Black
Central (1st) 1,014 Loop, Near South Side White
Grand Central (25th) 996 Belmont Cragin, Montclare, Hermosa, Austin, Humboldt Park Latino

Source: City of Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications

Adeshina is a former reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ Public_Ade.

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