CESSA: Community Emergency Services and Support Act


Governor Pritzker Signs CESSA into Illinois State Law

A teal background with an illustration of a Black woman triumphantly holding a newspaper in the air. The newspaper headline reads, "#CelebrateCESSA: CESSA Becomes Law." To the right of the woman is neon green text that says, "WE DID IT." Below the text is a white Access Living logo.

On August 25, 2021, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act (CESSA) into law, which requires emergency response operators to refer calls seeking mental and behavioral health support to a new service that can dispatch a team of mental health professionals instead of police, marking a significant change from current policy.


Candace Coleman

Community Organizer – Racial Justice


(312) 640-2128

CESSA requires these calls be referred to the Department of the Human Services-Division of Mental Health (DMH) for immediate assistance, which can include dispatching mobile mental health units. The DMH program is set to rollout statewide no later than July 2022.

Driven by those with lived experience, and sponsored by State Sen. Robert Peters (D-District 13) and Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-District 14), CESSA helps create a new approach to emergency response to fill a critical gap in Illinois’ capabilities, aiming to cut back on unnecessary lock-ups, and reduce police violence, particularly in Black and brown communities. Black and brown disabled people make up at least half of those killed by police.

“CESSA will help make sure people get services and supports instead of involving police when they’re not needed,” said Candace Coleman, racial justice community organizer at Access Living, a leading disability organization in Chicago. “This law will save lives.”

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

The shooting death of 15-year-old Stephon Watts by a police officer called to his home to help transport him to his doctor, spurred community organizers with disabilities in Access Living’s community organizing group Advance Your Leadership Power to look for better ways to handle mental and behavioral health emergencies they experienced and saw happening in their neighborhoods.

CESSA is the result of their work alongside the Watts family and with the support of a dedicated team of coalition partners including: The ACLU, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Answers, Inc., the Arc of Illinois, Asian Pacific American Advocates – Greater Chicago Chapter, Black Lives Matter Chicago, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), Chicagoland Autism Connection, Chicago Torture Justice Center, Chicago Women Take Action, Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4), Decarcerate BloNo, Equip for Equality, Family to Family, Family Health Center, First Defense Legal Aid, Howard Brown Health Center, Indivisible, Institute on Disability and Human Development – University of Illinois Chicago, Mental Health Summit, ONE Northside, RAMP CIL, Sinai Health System, STOP and SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Chicago.

“It’s encouraging to see Illinois be the first state to take the important step of requiring a uniform response that doesn’t involve police,” said Coleman. “Today’s signing begins the process of making this a reality, and it’s time to get to work.”

Read the press release in our newsroom here.

How Can I Get Involved?

Now that CESSA has become law, our next steps will be around rolling it out in July of 2022. Right now we are working hard with other nonprofits and community groups to ensure the proper supports are in place. To find out how you can get involved, contact Candace Coleman, Racial Justice Community Organizer at ccoleman@accessliving.org.

More About CESSA

What is CESSA?

Two people sit on a bench as one consoles the other by touching the other’s shoulder.
Image created by Genevieve Silva

CESSA stands for Community Emergency Services and Support Act. It is a bill created by racial justice advocates at Access Living in partnership with the family of Stephon Watts. CESSA addresses the health needs of people who are not violent and who are not violating the law by sending support instead of police. It expands the reach of current programs operating across the state that have already rejected co-responder models for this population, requiring that such work be coordinated with and accessible through the State’s 911 systems. The mobile response service proposed by CESSA is based on the CAHOOTS model that operates in Eugene, Oregon, and dispatches teams of medics (either a nurse or an EMT) and a crisis worker (who has at least several years of experience in the mental health field) to calls requesting help for mental and behavioral health emergencies. 

The Problem:

  • 10% of 911 calls request help with a mental or behavioral health emergency.
  • Since Illinois lacks a coordinated health care response service, 911 can only dispatch law enforcement.
  • Law enforcement practices focusing on “command and control” of a location actually makes many of these emergencies worse.
  • Law enforcement skills are rarely needed as people with mental illness are less likely to be violent than people without such a diagnosis.
  • Law enforcement is generally compelled to hospitalize or jail people needing this service, but 90% of people do not need such an invasive and costly response.

What Will CESSA Do?

CESSA will establish an emergency response option for mental health emergencies, one that does not involve any police or law enforcement. Now that it is state law, CESSA requires each of the State’s EMS Regions to coordinate a mobile mental and behavioral health service through its 911 provider so that such service is available wherever the region provides ambulance service. Subject to certain minimum service levels, each EMS Region decides the extent to which it will rely on existing service options or encourages additional providers to offer services. CESSA would also:

  • Create a 911 response option apart from law enforcement for mental and behavioral health emergencies everywhere an ambulance service exists.
  • Require responders to use appropriate de-escalation techniques and then connect callers to their existing care providers or to available community services and supports.
  • Saves State and local dollars by supporting people in the community rather than in emergency rooms and jails.
  • Empower each EMS Region to design regionally appropriate systems.

THIS BILL DOES NOT TRAIN POLICE. CESSA is NOT based on a co-responder model, in which police are accompanied by social workers. The bill aims to avoid any police intervention.

Who Supports CESSA?

CESSA is supported by a wide variety of Chicago nonprofits, mental health professionals, community partners, allies, and elected officials, with more and more supporters signing on all the time. Current supporters include:

  • Access Living
  • ACLU
  • Advance Your Leadership Power
  • AIDS Foundation of Chicago
  • Answers, Inc.
  • Arc of Illinois
  • Asian Pacific American Advocates, Greater Chicago Chapter
  • Black Lives Matter Chicago
  • Brighton Park Neighborhood Council
  • Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR) 
  • Chicagoland Autism Connection
  • Chicago Torture Justice Center
  • Chicago Women Take Action
  • Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4)
  • Decarcerate BloNo
  • Family to Family
  • Family Health Center
  • First Defense Legal Aid
  • Equip for Equality
  • Howard Brown Health Center
  • Indivisible
  • Institute on Disability and Human Development – University of Illinois, Chicago
  • Mental Health Summit
  • ONE Northside
  • Senator Robert Peters (Chief Sponsor in the Senate)
  • Sinai Health System
  • State Representative Kelly Cassidy (Chief Sponsor in the House)
  • STOP
  • SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) Chicago

Archive: Further Reading

It’s hard to miss the escalating national discussion about the need for mobile non-police emergency options. People want better options and safer communities, and most importantly, to stop deaths and disabling at the hands of police. Here are some recent stories from around the country:

Archive: Town Halls