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With rise in crisis calls, officials say COVID-19 pandemic could be exacerbating instability

DeKalb County Circuit Court Judge Robbin Stuckert deliberated over a Zoom bond conference call whether to release Matthew Wade on electronic home monitoring where he’d be in isolation at home, or figure out how to get him to see a nurse while in DeKalb County Jail, the site of strict crowd-control stipulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Wade, 37, of the 1500 block of Hulmes Road in DeKalb, is facing Class 2 felony charges of aggravated battery of a police officer for spitting blood on a police officer while he was in the emergency room at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital where the officer had taken him during an altercation brought upon by abusing drugs.

Wade has prior felony battery convictions, according to DeKalb County court records, and Stuckert’s deliberations (which ended with an EHM order and $25,000 recognizance bond) brought up a phenomenon now facing law enforcement and court officials alike: how to prosecute crime brought on by those in mental illness or addiction-fueled crisis in uncertain times compounded by a worldwide pandemic.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato said Wade has been an ‘outlier,’ but there’s still cause for concern.

“That’s an extreme situation,” Amato said. “We’re not seeing a ton of that at all. But it’s still concerning. It’s the system trying to fall over itself to do something.”

It’s those compounding crises which have brought on additional concerns: where to house those in mental or physical crisis when jails would rather not take in more inmates due to public health concerns. How to get people the social service aid they need when medical offices aren’t necessarily taking patients in person, and what to do when staying at home, alone, doesn’t seem like the best fix?

Fatal overdoses, crisis calls on the rise

Battery and domestic violence cases are on the rise, as are suicidal calls and fatal overdoses.

“We are seeing an increase in a lot of those calls,” said DeKalb Police Cmdr. Steve Lekkas. “We’ve also seen an increase in a lot of behavioral health issues, because under normal circumstances somebody could just go see their counselor or therapist. And a lot of that is on hold so they’re kind of having to deal with that on the fly.”

DeKalb County has seen six fatal overdoses in the past month, including two which occurred in the City of DeKalb within 48 hours of each other.

“That’s a lot,” Amato said. “That’s alarming. We do have a problem in our county with continual overdose deaths due to opioids. But I think because of COVID, we’re seeing the effects of people not being able to deal with whatever led them to the addiction they had.”

DeKalb County Coroner Denny Miller said he couldn’t release the names of the individuals yet, however, the majority of the ODs were related to heroin, he said.

Compared to April of 2019, in April of 2020, there has been an 11% increase in domestic-related calls, Lekkas said, from 683 last year to 756 in April this year. Similarly, calls for suicidal subjects in April last year reached 76, while this year in April they hit 95.

For behavioral health incidents in April last year compared to April this year, DeKalb police recorded a 68% increase, from 68 calls to 114 in one month.

On March 24, a four-hour standoff ended peacefully after DeKalb police successfully de-escalated a situation where a man (already facing charges for allegedly torturing his pitbull) barricaded himself in his home on Ball Avenue and threatened to shoot himself and the officers with a gun. The man, Ryan Fox, 38, was taken to Kish for a behavioral health assessment, charged with aggravated assault, disorderly conduct and resisting a police officer, and later appeared in a mug shot at DeKalb County Jail in a hospital gown.

A week later, on April 3, DeKalb police shut down a portion of Lincoln Highway downtown briefly after a Chicago man traveled to DeKalb threatening to shoot his ex-girlfriend. Malcolm Cobb, of Chicago, was charged with stalking, aggravated assault and disorderly conduct, and though police found no gun on him after a search, he was also transported to Kish for an evaluation.

Is pandemic a factor in the rise in numbers?

Does this type of behavior track with historic trends related to mental crises and crime?

Deanna Cada, executive director of the DeKalb County Community Mental Health Board, said the extension of Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order in April through the end of May may have been a trigger for people.

“What kind of happened is when we first went into shelter in place there had been a real drop in crisis calls,” Cada said. “We weren’t seeing a lot of people reaching out. And then probably right as they were making the announcement that we were going to go another 30 days, we started to see that uptick.”

The mental health board supports area resource providers to ensure residents receive access to services for mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and developmental disabilities. Many organizations such as the Family Service Agency, Safe Passage and Northwestern Medicine’s Ben Gordon Center, which offers crisis, abuse and addition treatment, have continued to operate during the COVID-19 crisis, but with telemedicine as a main component, Cada said.

“People are now starting to reach out and act out in terms of if they had an existing mental illness or addiction problems,” Cada said. “We’re really seeing an increase in anxiety and depression as well.”

Law enforcement and state’s attorney in multiples counties say they’ve witnessed an uptick in behavioral crisis calls. People are more isolated due to the ongoing stay-at-home mandates, money is tight for many which can lead to stress int he home and even drug supplies may be impacted due to societal changes.

Eric Weis, Kendall County State’s Attorney, said his office has seen a rise in domestic violence related calls and people filing for orders of protection, in part because Mutual Ground – a domestic abuse shelter which serves Kendall and Kane counties, similar to Safe Passage in DeKalb County – has adjusted their services due to ongoing public health and safety concerns.

He said part of the uptick in types of cases could also have to do with lowered crime rates in other areas.

“Obviously we were expecting the numbers to go down because as law enforcement focuses more on things that are critical and avoid interactions, so routine criminal activities such as speeding are not going to have any interactions,” Weis said. “But we knew there was going to be an uptick in domestic violence and domestic battery type cases because of people being confided at home, and use of drugs and alcohol.”

Weis said his office receives a coroner’s report monthly, and thus far has not noticed anything which would suggest a rise in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s changed now is added stresses beyond many people’s control, and agencies are working under ongoing circumstances just like everyone else.

“There’s other things that are unfortunately happening with people being unemployed, and that causes depression or alcohol issues stemming from that,” Lekkas said. “Some of the domestic that we’ve seen you can trace back to a recent job loss, which led to abusing alcohol and bad things happening.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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