Tisha Bryson has been shackled, hospitalized and shoved to the ground by central Illinois law enforcement officers while experiencing a mental health crisis more times than she can count.
“I try not to hold grudges,” Bryson said, a resident of Hammond in Piatt County, about 40 miles southwest of Champaign. “But some of the ways I was treated were very traumatizing.”
Bryson’s experiences speak to the central role police play in mental health treatment in central Illinois and nationwide. Her case also surfaces a regular criticism: that police are not adequately trained to respond to mental health crises and often respond with punitive measures that cause further harm.
Crisis response data from the Champaign Police Department from 2017 to 2020, for example, show the majority of mental health emergencies handled by officers led to petitions for involuntary admission, but the data did not indicate how many of the petitions were initiated by police, and how many were initiated by other parties, like family members or medical facilities. Additionally, about half of the officers responding to crises were not trained in crisis intervention.
The police department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But there is a direct link between mental health and incarceration—over one-third of people in prisons and jails have some kind of mental health disorder, a 2017 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics study found.
Many police departments throughout Illinois have committed to training officers through the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program, which teaches officers how to assist people in mental health and addiction-related emergencies.
About 60 percent of the state’s law enforcement agencies have had at least one officer go through CIT training, according to the state Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. However, research is inconclusive as to the true effectiveness of CIT programs.
The Champaign crisis data, obtained by the Invisible Institute, also indicate some kind of force is used by officers in about one in every ten police responses to mental health crises between 2017 and 2020.
One such incident gained local and national notoriety in 2016. In November of that year, Champaign Police Department officers responded to a disorderly conduct call about Richard Turner, a 54-year-old Black man who had a history of mental health issues and was experiencing homelessness.
The responding officers, of whom at least two had CIT training, used restraints and pinned Turner to the ground, where he began having difficulty breathing and became unresponsive. Paramedics were unable to revive him. However, the officers involved—Sergeant Thomas Frost in addition to three other officers—were cleared of wrongdoing in 2017, a verdict was ultimately affirmed by a panel of appellate judges in 2020.
Alternative responses to crises have been discussed statewide, leading to the introduction of the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act (CESSA). Under this legislation, which is expected to begin rolling out next year after a review process, responders must divert people from hospitalization or incarceration and instead link them with community services.
Breakdowns Started at 18
Bryson was 18 years old when she had what she refers to as her first psychotic breakdown.
When she becomes symptomatic, she often believes she is the “chosen one,” a common delusion for people with psychosis or schizophrenia, she said. Bryson’s family reacted to the emergency as many people would—they called 911, hoping law enforcement would know what to do.
Since then, Bryson, now 34, has had numerous negative interactions with officers over the years. Many of these instances, documented in public records, occurred while Bryson says she was in a state of psychosis, due to her diagnosed bipolar I disorder with psychotic features.
Bryson remembers walking through town believing she was in heaven one day in 2015. She wound up near her father’s apartment, when a truck coming down the alleyway changed her direction.
“I looked down the alley . . . and I thought it was my mom,” said Bryson, whose mother passed away years ago at the time. “I thought I was supposed to follow this truck.”
Bryson, whose daughter was two months old at the time, followed the truck and came across a family moving into a trailer.
“I walked into the trailer and there was a mom and a dad and a little girl standing there,” she said. “And I thought maybe time had gone forward or something, because I thought that little girl was my little girl. So I walked up to the child and I crouched down and said, ‘I bet you don’t remember me, do you?’ And then of course, the mother starts yelling at me. This crazy lady just walked into my trailer.”
According to the police report filed after the incident, Bryson picked up the two-year-old child and attempted to leave the residence. Bryson, however, does not recall ever touching the child, but remembers the cop cars arriving.
Atwood Police Chief Robert Bross transported her to the Douglas County Correctional Center, and she was charged with aggravated kidnapping, criminal trespassing, and disorderly conduct.
“That was the worst psychotic episode I had ever been in,” Bryson said. “Jail was not where I needed to be.”
Since receiving her diagnosis, Bryson has had interactions with various police departments throughout the region, including the Urbana and Champaign departments. Bryson’s account, supported by public records, demonstrates the challenges she has faced with Atwood’s small police department—challenges that extend beyond just the incidents themselves.
In one incident, Bross contacted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and reported Bryson for neglect of her baby daughter after she had become symptomatic. As a result, Bryson lost custody of her child, who was adopted by Bryson’s aunt. Bross declined a request to comment.
Police as First Responders Can Trigger Traumas During Crises
For people with mental and behavioral health disorders in Illinois, experiences like Bryson’s are not unique. Across the nation, police act as first responders to mental health emergencies, a system that often leads to hospitalization or arrest of the person in crisis.
One in four people with mental illness have histories of police arrest, and about one in ten have interactions with police prior to receiving inpatient or outpatient mental health services, according to a 2016 systematic review of 85 US-based studies conducted by a criminologist at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
A 2020 Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) report on mental health and violence found that stigmatization can impact how police treat individuals with mental illness.
“Despite research showing the vast majority of individuals with mental illness are not violent, the dangerousness of mental illness is frequently exaggerated in the news and entertainment industries,” the report reads. “Resultant stigma toward those with mental illness can greatly impact public policy and opinion.”
In addition, police sometimes involuntarily commit people in crisis to mental health facilities for treatment, a controversial and potentially dangerous practice. Police departments and mental health advocates have proposed a range of responses, including more training for officers and a larger shift away from relying on police in cases like Bryson’s.
Still, interaction with police in times of crisis remains a common and all-too-often traumatic process for people with mental illness.
“We certainly have had situations where people are afraid of the police due to past interactions,” said Stacey Aschemann, vice president of the Independent Monitoring Unit at the Illinois nonprofit Equip for Equality, which serves as a federally mandated watchdog over the state’s disability services system. “For instance, say someone has autism spectrum disorder, and the police don’t quite understand how to approach someone with this diagnosis, and they get in the person’s space. That’s going to be something that could cause a problem.”
People with mental illnesses face disproportionate levels of police violence, statistics show.
Approximately 22 percent of the over 7,300 fatal police shootings in the US since 2015 involved people with known mental health struggles, according to a Washington Post database. In addition, people with serious mental illness experience police use of force at 11.6 times the rate of those without mental illness, according to a 2021 study conducted by a University of Toronto criminologist and a Yale University psychologist.
These rates vary significantly based on race and other demographic factors. Among those who experience a mental health crisis, Black people are three times more likely to have police force used against them than white people, based on the researchers’ analysis of census-tract-level data.
Some mental health cases in Champaign have appeared to result in the use of force. The Champaign Police Department (CPD) provided a list of 651 use-of-force incidents between 2017 and 2020. About 9 percent of them have a matching report number in a separate dataset that CPD keeps to track responses to mental health cases.
The department did not respond to requests to verify this analysis of its data.
The Turner Case
In the city’s best-known case, officers approached Richard Turner, a 54-year-old Black man who had a history of mental health issues and was experiencing homelessness, after receiving a disorderly conduct call about a man in the Campustown neighborhood.
Turner was well-known to police: Sergeant Thomas Frost, the most senior officer involved in the incident, had known him since the early 1990s, and referred to Turner as his “friend” in a deposition taken in a police misconduct lawsuit filed by Turner’s sister in 2017.
According to court records, Turner had been observed that morning seemingly out of sorts: walking in traffic, yelling at passersby and rummaging through trash near the University of Illinois campus. It was also reported in some news accounts that he was drinking alcohol before police arrived, but the toxicology test conducted as part of his autopsy didn’t find any alcohol or illicit substances.
When an officer approached Turner, he reacted out of distress—he usually walked away from police officers, his sister alleged in court filings—and began speaking unintelligibly and waving his arms, knocking down a construction tag. After trying to talk to him, the officers, one of whom was still in training, decided to detain him and send him to a hospital for treatment.
While waiting for an ambulance, Turner allegedly tried to run away. Two Champaign officers on the scene pinned him to the ground—one placed his knee on Turner’s shoulder—and handcuffed him as he resisted. The officers then secured a strap called a hobble around Turner’s ankles to restrain his legs. He struggled against the officers throughout the entire interaction. Turner’s sister argued in court records that he “reacted this way because he was likely having difficulty breathing.”
After securing the hobble, Frost asked if he was still breathing. The officers—one of whom, Andrew Wilson, had in addition to Frost received CIT training—determined that Turner had stopped breathing. Paramedics arrived but were unable to revive him. The Champaign officers were cleared of criminal and administrative wrongdoing in Turner’s death in 2017, and the lawsuit was dismissed in 2019 after federal Magistrate Judge Eric Long found the officers used “reasonable force” and granted them qualified immunity. A panel of appellate judges affirmed the decision in 2020.
However, the case has served as a rallying point for advocates of police reform in the area in the years since.
Involuntary Commitment Becoming More Common Nationwide
Turner’s death occurred as officers were trying to admit him for mental health treatment against his will, a process known as involuntary commitment.
In Illinois individuals can be involuntarily admitted on an inpatient basis to a mental health facility if their illness poses a threat of physical harm to themselves or others, if they are unable to provide for their own physical needs, or if they refuse treatment and do not understand their need for treatment, according to the Illinois Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code.
In general, the law requires individuals to file a petition for involuntary commitment in court before a person is held. In emergency situations in which a person in crisis is a threat to themself or others, however, police can immediately transport the individual to a mental health facility, if an officer determines emergency admission is necessary. Illinois is one of 28 states where police officers can initiate involuntary commitments, according to research by the Policy Surveillance Program at Temple University’s law school.
Transportation to hospitals by law enforcement—which is often the default transportation option in mental health emergencies in many states, even if police do not initiate the petition—can feel punitive and criminalizing, said Marvin Swartz, a Duke University psychiatry and behavioral science professor who studies involuntary outpatient commitment.
“Imagine an 80-year-old woman who is very confused because of dementia and is out of control. That person may very likely be put in a police car in shackles and taken to see the doctor or taken to the hospital or taken to court in shackles,” Swartz said.
People experiencing physical health emergencies like heart attacks are transported by ambulance, not the police, he said.
“From the perspective of the patients—often patients who are very confused and misperceiving things—it feels like being arrested,” he said. “So the fact that this whole custody transportation system is typically managed by law enforcement, I think, is a real problem in terms of people feeling criminalized when they enter that process.”
The Invisible Institute and CU-CitizenAccess last year reported on a 2020 case of a woman whose door was broken and who was involuntarily committed by officers from the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office, including Sgt. Norman Meeker, who was later allowed to resign in good standing after a plea deal for flipping his registered truck from the Sheriff’s Office and receiving a DUI in 2021.
Involuntary hospitalization is becoming increasingly common throughout the nation. Between 2011 and 2018, instances of involuntary detention increased by 13 percent while the average population only increased by 4 percent, according to a 2020 study of psychiatric detentions in 22 states by social work researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Nearly 60 percent of all known clients in the country who received inpatient mental health treatment services during a selected survey date range were involuntarily admitted for care, according to the 2020 National Mental Health Services Survey, an annual federal government census of all known public and private mental health treatment facilities.
These reports do not specify what percentage of admissions were initiated by police. None of the agencies or police departments contacted by the Invisible Institute had data specifying police-initiated admissions.
Some Blame Loss of Psychiatric Beds, But Little Consensus Exists
Some experts attribute the increase in involuntary hospitalizations to a loss of psychiatric beds in hospitals. The number of state hospital beds across the country decreased nearly 97 percent between its peak in 1955 and 2016, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit focused on eliminating obstacles to mental health care.
Illinois had just 9.3 psychiatric beds per 100,000 people in 2016, compared to the national average of approximately 11 beds, according to data compiled from the Census Bureau and National Institute of Mental Health by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
A different 2021 study, conducted by social work researchers at Salem State University in Massachusetts, estimated the number of psychiatric hospital beds in Illinois to be 31 per 100,000 people, closer to projected needs and the national average of 35.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve lost so many psychiatric beds, both state and private beds, that it’s very hard to get a bed,” psychiatry professor Swartz said. “So involuntary commitment has started to function as the way to get care.”
Others argue that the rates of involuntary hospitalization are high simply because there are few other options.
“I think people in the public policy field generally agree that the problem is more lack of alternatives than it is too few hospital beds,” said Ira Burnim, legal director for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a national civil rights organization that advocates for people with mental disabilities. These alternatives include crisis stabilization units or respite apartments—places people in crisis can go voluntarily for immediate short-term care, staffed by peers and clinical professionals.
“There are costs to overusing involuntary hospitalization,” he said. “One, it’s actually a pretty expensive intervention. But two—the cost I’m more concerned about—is that coercion does not feel good [to patients].”
There are a “substantial number of people” whose experiences of involuntary treatment discourage further use of the mental health system altogether, he added.
Relying on law enforcement to respond to mental health crises also leads to disparities along racial lines, Swartz said. Disproportionately, Black people “are more likely to access treatment via emergency services, for a variety of reasons.”
Records released through the state’s Freedom of Information Act show that the majority of mental health emergencies handled by the Champaign Police Department led to petitions for involuntary admission. Between February 2017 and November 2021, Champaign police responded to 1,268 incidents categorized by the department as “crisis intervention,” which includes mental health crises such as psychotic symptoms and suicide threats.
Of these incidents, 667 (52.6 percent) resulted in petitions for involuntary admission, though the data do not make clear who the initiating party of the commitment process is. The CPD did not respond to a request to confirm the Invisible Institute’s analysis of its data.
Over 40 percent of the department’s reported mental health crisis intervention incidents since 2017 involve Black residents, department data show, despite the city’s population being only 18 percent Black.
One factor contributing to this disparity, Swartz said, is that people of color nationwide are far less likely to have health insurance.
“If you’re uninsured, it’s hard to get services on a voluntary basis, because you don’t have any insurance coverage,” he said. “And the places that can provide free care are increasingly constrained. So if you’re Black and poor and uninsured, your introduction to any service is likely via [the] emergency room, and then more likely via involuntary care.”
Additionally, access to care in Champaign-Urbana is limited—the largest mental health treatment and rehab center in the region is Rosecrance, a private nonprofit organization. Carle Foundation Hospital also charges the highest rate it can to uninsured patients for all services, according to its federal price transparency sheet.
Stacey Aschemann, whose job at Equip for Equality is to inform people with disabilities of their legal rights, said not every mental health crisis should be escalated to hospitalization.
“If someone’s having a mental health crisis, and you involve professionals in it that have a background in social work and the mental health system, they might be able to connect somebody with services in the community, as opposed to jumping towards hospitalization, involuntary treatment, and things that are generally very restrictive,” Aschemann said.
Burnim agrees that people in crisis would benefit from alternative community services.
“Relatively few of the people who are the subject of crisis calls need to be hospitalized, but they may need some other kind of service,” he said.
Lack of Understanding Can Lead to Involuntary Commitment
In the 11 years prior to her arrest after trying to “kidnap” a child she thought was her own, Bryson had been hospitalized in psychiatric facilities about 30 times, according to court records. Though most of her hospitalizations were with her consent, one experience of police-initiated involuntary hospitalization in 2015 stands out to her.
At the time, Bryson had become symptomatic after going off her medication to breastfeed her newborn daughter. She was speaking on the phone to a Piatt County probation officer, whom she had to report to because of a previous incident in which she had acted out in a hospital while in a psychotic state.
“The probation officer thought I sounded funny over the phone,” Bryson said. “Now at this time, I was not in any state of psychosis. I was just manic and talking quickly and moving from subject to subject.”
Concerned with how she was talking, the officer contacted the Piatt County Mental Health Center for assistance but was told it no longer conducts home visits, according to the police report filed after the incident. The officer then contacted Atwood Police Chief Bross and asked him to check on Bryson and her baby’s welfare. Shortly after, Bross arrived at Bryson’s door.
A Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputy—Atwood, where Bryson lived at the time, straddles the border between Piatt and Douglas Counties—later arrived at the scene as well.
Bross transported Bryson to Kirby Medical Center in Monticello for a mental health evaluation. Bryson remembers him accompanying her to the emergency room, where she was given a dose of Ativan, against her will, to calm down.
“When it comes to anxiety medication, that’s not the type of medication I prefer. It makes me feel very agitated,” Bryson said.
“I started yelling because I wanted to just get out of there. I started yelling at the cop, I started yelling at the nurses, and I don’t really remember much after that,” she continued. “The next thing I remember, I woke up on the psychiatric floor, and I had been admitted.”
It was this incident that resulted in Bross reporting Bryson to DCFS for child neglect, a practice that has resulted in other residents filing complaints against him with the village board.
“This really just ruined my life,” Bryson said. “I lost the chance to raise my daughter. And it all started with an officer at my door not understanding that I had just had a baby and I was sick.”
Bross declined to comment this past summer.
“Don’t Come In Like You’re a Cop’: Alternative Response Models to Mental Health Crisis
The Urbana Police Department, in collaboration with nonprofit C-U at Home, Rosecrance Behavioral Health Services, Carle Foundation Hospital, and other Champaign County law enforcement units, planned in 2020 to create a program called One Door Crisis Response System, a co-responder model in which trained crisis workers would partner with police to provide care to people experiencing mental health emergencies.
The program, however, was never launched. Administrative conversations about One Door stalled in early 2021, partially due to a lack of coordination among agencies as well as uncertainty about funding, according to Rick Williams, C-U at Home’s ministry development associate. Since then, the Urbana and University of Illinois police departments have launched individual crisis response initiatives of their own.
Various law enforcement agencies in the region have taken steps to better train officers for mental health emergencies. Officers in Illinois can become CIT-certified by completing a one-week, 40-hour training program provided by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. On the fourth day of Illinois’ CIT training program, police officers are often joined by volunteers from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). These individuals speak with officers about their own experiences and give advice on how they would like to be treated in crisis situations.
Keisha Taylor, a 36-year-old Eastern Illinois University student and NAMI member, attended an Illinois CIT training as a volunteer. Taylor was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her advice to officers during the training was to treat every situation like a mental health situation.
“If somebody called on me and you answered the door, I’d want you to come in like you’re a friend. Don’t come in like a cop,” she said. “Don’t ask necessarily leading questions or things that sound like you’re accusing me. Come in there like you’re there to help me, like you’re my counselor.”
For Bryson, though her experiences with law enforcement have been difficult, she also recognizes that she did need help in these moments of crisis, and that calling 911 was often the only way to receive immediate assistance.
“I can’t hold stuff against those officers that showed up,” Bryson said. “They might have been rude or aggressive or this or that, but if they hadn’t intervened when they did, it’s hard telling where I would have ended up.”
Bryson, who has also volunteered with NAMI, thinks every officer should have the opportunity to receive mental health training. However, while recent research shows CIT training is often perceived positively by trained officers, there is little evidence supporting the idea that it decreases arrests, officer injury, citizen injury, use of force or lethality during police encounters.
One study involving 180 officers from six departments, about half of whom were CIT-trained, found CIT officers were more likely to refer people to mental health facilities. The same study, however, found no measurable difference in use of force between officers with CIT training and those without it.
The program’s effectiveness can also vary across departments depending on their culture surrounding mental health interventions, Burnim said. For departments that approach people with mental illness as if they are criminals who need to be treated with force, CIT is likely less effective.
“It’s hard to send people off to a training and expect that when they come back, somehow they’re going to rebel against the culture of the organization,” Burnim said. “Training, I think, is a very useful tool to supporting change. But you have to support change in the first place. Otherwise, training doesn’t make much difference.”
Additionally, CIT-trained officers are not always dispatched during mental health crises unless specifically requested by the 911 caller. At the Champaign Police Department, for example, CIT-trained officers were present at the scene for only slightly over half (52.2 percent) of all reported CIT-related incidents since 2017—despite over 40 CPD officers receiving CIT training since 2009, according to public employment records and data released by CPD.
“CIT training, I think it’s useful. I don’t think it’s a solution,” Burnim said. “CIT training is for the police, and you want to have options other than the police.”
Some cities and the state of Illinois have begun creating alternative response models for mental health crises. These alternatives, rather than focusing on police training, aim to limit or avoid police interaction entirely.
The Illinois General Assembly passed the Community Emergency Services and Supports Act (CESSA) last August. CESSA requires emergency response operators to refer mental and behavioral health-related calls to a phone line that connects the caller to a team of mental health professionals.
Under this legislation, responders to these emergencies must divert people from hospitalization or incarceration “whenever possible,” and instead link them with community services. Law enforcement will not be dispatched unless the individual experiencing a crisis is suspected of violating the law or presents a physical threat to self or others.
CESSA’s creation was influenced by the shooting of Stephon Edward Watts, a 15-year-old with autism who was killed in his home in the south suburbs of Chicago by Calumet City police officers, and other cases like his. The officers, who were responding to a 911 call from Watts’s father to help his son calm down from an outburst, fired two shots at Watts as he allegedly moved toward them with a butter knife, killing him.
Urbana resident and community organizer Allan Max Axelrod said CESSA can help avoid these types of tragedies by ensuring law enforcement is not involved unless a person is in physical danger.
“There is no justified reason, in my view, for any police involvement if someone is not a danger to themselves or others,” Axelrod said. “And to be clear, holding a butter knife is not necessarily a threat to themselves or others.”
The Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health is also implementing a federally mandated 988 hotline, a national three-digit phone number for individuals experiencing mental health crises. CESSA and 988 will roll out statewide by 2023, though some areas started creating additional local 211 hotline numbers last year.
“The development of alternative crisis lines, like the development of 988, I think is an opportunity to, ideally, connect people with different kinds of support beyond law enforcement response,” said Daniela Gilbert, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Redefining Public Safety program. “Armed police officers showing up to address mental health calls can escalate certain situations and can reinforce the misperception that these crises are criminal, when in fact they are health issues.”
The Vera Institute, a national organization that works to end overcriminalization of people of color, aims to increase equity and safety in behavioral health crisis response by involving communities in response models. “It’s really important for impacted communities to be in decision-making spaces,” Gilbert said.
She added that requests for police backup have been “very rare” in places where civilian response programs have been implemented. The CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, requested backup only 311 times out of the estimated 17,700 calls it responded to in 2019. But it’s not a panacea; other programs have not had as much success limiting police involvement. New York City’s B-HEARD program, for example, had to redirect 17 percent of its calls back to the police in its first three months, in part due to a lack of resources and personnel.
In addition, some experts have criticized most current co-responder models as being short-term “band-aid” solutions that don’t take the needs of people in crisis after their crisis has ended into account. Researchers have also warned that implementing the new emergency number systems without sufficient staffing and funding can backfire. A June survey by the RAND Corporation found that most agencies around the country are not prepared to launch 988.
Bryson, based on her own experiences, thinks there are still many flaws with the ways mental health emergencies are currently handled in Illinois. Though she still struggles with the ups and downs of being bipolar, she said calling the police is now a “last case scenario” for her.
Going forward, she hopes to continue sharing her story and shedding light on issues related to mental illness, she said. Her advice to those responding to emergencies: “Always keep in mind that anybody could be going through a mental health crisis.”
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance or resources, you can contact a volunteer crisis counselor through crisistextline.org. If you are in Champaign County or other parts of Central Illinois, you can call 2-1-1 or find alternative numbers for community resources at illinois211.org. In addition, you can directly contact the Rosecrance Local Crisis Line at 217-359-4141. Please be aware that some services may contact law enforcement, even if it is against your wishes, if they believe the situation warrants it. You can find additional local resources at namichampaign.org/resources.
This story is part of a partnership focusing on police misconduct in Central Illinois between the Illinois Police Data Project of the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit public accountability journalistic production company, and CU-CitizenAccess, a newsroom devoted to community and watchdog reporting based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Media. This partnership is supported by the Data-Driven Reporting Project.
Kelsey Turner is a recent Medill School of Journalism graduate whose writing focuses on social justice issues facing minority communities. She worked on this story as a graduate intern with the Invisible Institute. Kelsey has written for a number of publications and now reports on affordable housing and homelessness for The Columbian, a local newspaper in Vancouver, Washington.
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