This is MindSite News reporter Josh McGhee.

This month we dropped our first investigation on 988 call centers — a collaboration with WBEZ and Block Club Chicago — diving into crisis response in Illinois. The investigation began with a simple fact: Illinois had the worst in-state answer rate for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the country. Why? 

The answer was remarkably straightforward: a lack of call centers in our most populous city. While there is one call center in Chicago, until this year its coverage area only included the North Side, and it wasn’t funded to operate 24/7. The gap in coverage, experts told us, meant that a lot of calls were routed to call centers in other states. They were answered, we were told, “as long as the person was willing to stay on the line long enough.” Problem was, a lot of people weren’t. More than one out of five callers hung up before they reached a counselor.

While the lack of a reliable call center is obviously a big issue, it is hard to assess the harm without knowing the need. To determine the parts of Chicago most in need of emergency services for mental health issues, we made a public records request for data containing all calls to 911 that were flagged as mental health-related over the last two-and-a-half years. To assess the harm, we asked for a log of every incident where police used force. With these two data sets, we were able to determine where people were calling from when they placed 911 calls for mental health issues, when police responded to these issues with force, and what kinds of force was used. 

We determined that a large percentage of the calls were hailing from the South Side of Chicago, where I live. It also showed that when officers handle these calls, the interactions can get violent, especially if you are Black. While two shootings occurred when police responded to mental health calls over the last two-and-a-half years, most of the use-of-force interactions were limited to takedowns or tasers. 

To get a better understanding of these nonfatal interactions, we requested further reports on some of these interactions. Most of the addresses were redacted, but one report – involving a young man in a three-generation family – alerted me to an issue I had been overlooking: that many of these events also end in arrest.

In this case, the young man’s grandmother came across her 22-year-old grandson motionless one night on the second-floor porch. She spoke to him, but he didn’t respond, she said.  

She ran through the house in a panic, then knocked on the bedroom door of her grandson’s father. When she didn’t get a response, she began dialing. 

“I’m frantic when I see him out there like that and my first thought is he might jump off this porch,” she said.

Paramedics and eight police officers rushed to the scene, some arriving within minutes. Initially, the officers failed to get a response out of him either, but eventually lured him down the stairs by inviting him to shoot some hoops on the backyard basketball court, Owens said. 

“When his foot hit that concrete off of that last stair, they all pounced on him. They were trying to drag him towards the ambulance, but he was fighting them off,” she said. “Then all of a sudden I see him fall, but I hear his head hit the concrete.” Officers tased him multiple times before handcuffing him to a gurney and putting him in an ambulance, according to arrest reports.

This is the kind of clash between mental health needs and police response that a new national mental health emergency hotline — 988 — was set up to avoid.

As I read through the report, I found it easy to put myself in the family’s shoes. Their child is acting in a way they don’t understand, they panic, they call the only people they can think of, and things get out of hand – fast. I wanted to know more so I drove to the West Side and knocked on their door. They didn’t answer. I went back to my car, wrote a letter and placed it on their door. I was halfway home when I got a call from the family and turned around.

LISTEN: I spoke with Sasha-Ann Simons, host of WBEZ’s Reset, about our reporting.

WATCH: I spoke with Brandon Pope, host of “On The Block”, about our investigation. The weekly television news magazine features neighborhood reporting from our reporting partner Block Club Chicago. Find a time to watch the segment here.

Story credits

Josh McGhee, investigative and data reporter, MindSite News

Ola Giwa, data specialist, WBEZ Chicago

Block Club Chicago: stock photography

Josh McGhee: photography on scene

Design: Rob Waters

Factchecking: Rob Waters, Matt Kiefer of WBEZ

Editing: Rob Waters and Diana Hembree, MindSite News; Matt Kiefer and Jennifer Tanaka, WBEZ

Note: This material is drawn from my story and the introductory issue of our MindSite News criminal justice newsletter, Diagnosis: Injustice.