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There aren't enough mental health counselors to respond to 911 calls. One county sheriff has a virtual solution.

How a sheriff's office handles mental health calls
Illinois sheriff's office creates new program to deal with mental health crises 03:35

Officer Dave Stiak didn't know what to expect when he got the call that someone was hanging over the railing of a bridge in Lemont, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. 

Stiak, a police officer for the Cook County Sheriff's Office, was on patrol with his partner in February when the calls started to come in. 

"He was standing outside of the safety railing, people were calling out to him," Stiak said. "He wasn't responding. He was looking off into the sunset. They said the guy looks like he's going to jump." 

Stiak gradually got closer to the man, making sure not to rush him.  

"I was able to reach out, put a hand on his shoulder and console this man… I give the man a hug," Stiak said. "My partner was there at the right time. We pulled him back over the railing." 

Dave Stiak, a police officer for the Cook County Sheriff's Office, shows where he and his partner pulled a suicidal person off the ledge of a bridge in Lemont, Illinois. Ryan Beard/CBS News

The outcome was a good one, but could have easily been worse. Stiak is the first to admit police are not best qualified to counsel people in crisis. 

"They don't train you [like] this is exactly what you do: This is the step A through Z of how to talk someone off of a bridge," Stiak said. "It's not really a police thing." 

New ways to de-escalate mental health crises 

Calls like the one Stiak encountered are why cities nationwide are experimenting with new ways to de-escalate mental health crises. After the incident, Stiak gave the man a card with contact information for the sheriff office's Treatment Response Team, which can get involved during or after a mental health call. 

The team is available 24/7, and while some alternate programs can send a limited number of mental health workers into the streets, the Cook County Sheriff's Office puts clinicians in the field as part of the 911 call response virtually – via Zoom.  

The sheriff's office launched the Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program, or CVAP, in late 2020. It lets officers patch-in clinicians via tablets to talk directly with those in crisis at the scene without putting the counselors in danger. 


Across the U.S., about one in four deadly law enforcement shootings involves a person with a serious mental illness, according to a report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, an organization that pushes for reforms to treat mental health issues.  

"Ultimately in these situations where you're encountering somebody in crisis, the best you can hope for is you walk away and they walk away safely," Stiak said.  

The new Co-Responder Virtual Assistance Program 

Elli Montgomery, executive director of the Treatment Response Team, recounted the first co-responder case, which she considered a success. 

"An officer that was very hesitant to work with us and not interested in doing this, but had tried everything to de-escalate an individual who was off their medication, is a boxer, suffering from bipolar disorder," she described. "He had used some substances. He was not stable."  

Cook County Sheriff Officers Respond to mental health call
Officers for the Cook County Sheriff's Office utilized a tablet to bring a clinician into the field, who helped de-escalate a mental health crisis as part of the department's co-responder virtual assistance program. Courtesy of Cook County Sheriff's Office

Montgomery said the man repeatedly engaged in self-harming behavior. 

"He was banging his head on the floor," she said. "He had hit his head. Just trying to crack open his head against the wall."  

That's when a sergeant on scene gave the man a tablet. Body camera video from the officers on scene shows the man sitting in a chair as Montgomery listened to and spoke with him. He was able to discuss what happened and Montgomery eventually convinced him to walk to the ambulance. The officers no longer needed to force him to get help. 

Police encounters with people in crisis 

Since 2020, Cook County received more than 1,000 calls for suicidal subjects and more than 1,300 well-being checks, according to a CBS News analysis of 911 data.   

The risk of being killed while being approached or stopped by law enforcement is 16 times higher for individuals with untreated serious mental illness, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center report.  

That scenario plays out across the country time and time again. 

Deputies fatally shot a 15-year-old in Apple Valley, California, in March who was allegedly armed with a bladed gardening tool. Law enforcement previously visited the home on five separate occasions, each time taking the individual to a mental health facility. 

New York City police officers fatally shot a 19-year-old man in front of his mother and brother in March during a mental health crisis. He reportedly ran toward officers with a pair of scissors. 

These are just some of the examples that highlight the complex mental health crises police encounter on a daily basis across the country. 

"Police are not the experts"

In some alternate programs, dispatchers have to screen 911 calls to ensure clinicians are not going into dangerous situations. Even then, the circumstances described by a 911 caller can be drastically different from the scenarios officers experience when they arrive. 

Calls for help

A CBS News data analysis of CVAP calls since 2021 showed nearly 57% of co-responder calls were reassessed as a mental health issue and about 22% of calls involved substance use disorders. 

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said CVAP brings officers unlimited access to counselors in complex situations, where police are not the experts. 

"When the 911 call comes in, you're sending a police officer with police training to a house," Dart said.  "That's fine if it's a criminal case. The majority of calls everyone's getting [are] mental health-based, and we're sending the wrong person there."  

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has sought nimble solutions to officers handling 911 calls for mental health crises.  Ryan Beard/CBS News

The use of the co-responder program has grown, with 269 calls just last year, according to an analysis of sheriff's office data. 

It showed the most common reasons for using the co-responder program include domestic trouble, suicide attempts, and citizen assistance. 

"If you were to talk to virtually anybody in law enforcement, what they will tell you is that the calls that they have, whether there's a domestic issue, mental health related issue, it's not the first time they've been to that house," Dart said. "They go to these houses over and over and over again."  

"We need somebody there that's properly trained to de-escalate"

Emily Dahl, a single mom diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has had multiple run-ins with police. Her family has had to call officers to her home during manic episodes.  

She recalled one time when she barricaded herself in the bathroom. 

"I actually ended up biting a police officer because I was in the shower," Dahl said. "The police had been at the house for over an hour trying to get me to go to the hospital, and I was terrified." 

It wouldn't be the last time things got physical with police. Dahl said in one instance when she locked herself in a room with her son, officers had to rip off the door.  

"They were concerned about my son's safety," she said. 

Emily Dahl
Emily Dahl has struggled with bipolar disorder and has experienced numerous interactions with law enforcement during a mental health crisis. Ryan Beard/CBS News

Officers could not bring in counselors virtually in those instances, but Dahl believes it would be helpful to have one there. 

"When you're in fight or flight, you can't reason with somebody in that state," she said. "So, I think that's really where we need help with clinicians. We need somebody there that's properly trained to de-escalate." 

Finding qualified mental health professionals has become a challenge since the pandemic. About 49% of Americans live in an area facing a mental health workforce shortage, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management. 

Clinicians for the Cook County Sheriff's Office Treatment Response Team address mental health calls in suburban Chicago. The city of Chicago does not participate in this program. Tim Horstman/CBS News

Sheriff: This program could work anywhere 

Dart's office said with just 12 employees, CVAP covers 31 suburban police departments, with plans to add eight more departments this year. The program serves about 791,000 residents at a cost of $1.2 million a year, according figures provided by the Cook County Sheriff's office. 

Their data shows an in-person model, requiring more than 130 staffers, would only serve a fraction of the population and cost an estimated $12.9 million a year.  

Elli Montgomery, the executive director of the Treatment Response Team, coordinates a team of clinicians to handle mental health calls across Cook County.  Tim Horstman/CBS News

"We can't predict mental health emergencies," said Montgomery of the Treatment Response Team. "So why would I put a salaried employee in a car that might not be able to work with anyone for eight hours or 10 hours?"  

Montgomery said the co-responder model gives the best of both worlds, with an officer providing safety and the clinician providing mental health support.  

Sheriff Dart said he cannot think of a place where this program will not work. 

"For me, success is that we're getting the right services to the right people right away, not theoretically down the road, but right now," he said.  

If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or a suicidal crisis, you can reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988. You can also chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline here.

For more information about mental health care resources and support, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–10 p.m. ET, at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or email

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