Training bill pitched to help police cope with challenges

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STATE HOUSE — Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan said some of his officers were a bit uneasy when the department rolled out a program that would embed a civilian — in this case a public health clinician — on patrol alongside officers.

But after seeing the successes of the Arlington Outreach Initiative, Ryan said his officers are fully on board with the program, and the chief is pushing for a state law to bring a similar program to other police departments.

“It’s been so rewarding to watch the cultural change in the organization. Cops did what we trained them to do, they went out and arrested people. When we change our vision and our values, so too changes the culture of the organization,” Ryan said. “We’re just adding another tool to the tool belt. We’re not diagnosing patients in the field. The only tool we were giving our police officers before these programs was handcuffs. Now we’re giving them a mental health professional who’s able to respond … to the field and provide the appropriate services.”

Ryan joined Sen. Jason Lewis, Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, police officials from Somerville and Cambridge, and the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) on Monday to advocate for a bill filed by Lewis to establish a clearinghouse to help police and behavioral health officials better serve those with addiction or mental health issues.

The bill, filed last month and still without a bill number, would create the Center of Excellence in Community Policing and Behavioral Health to facilitate “cost-effective and evidence-based mental health and substance use crisis response training programs for municipal police officers, the goal of which shall be to decrease the unnecessary arrest and incarceration of people with behavioral health conditions.”

“When did you expect to see law enforcement executives standing before the Legislature asking for more treatment services and not more cops?” Ryan said. “For far too long we’ve been telling people we can arrest our way out of addiction, we can arrest our way out of mental health disorders. It’s not the case.”

The center, largely modeled after a similar program in Bexar County, Texas, would provide 40-hour crisis intervention training for police officers to verbally de-escalate situations, recognize the signs of mental health or substance abuse disorders, and refer individuals to the appropriate resource or service, Lewis said.

Already, 60 police departments in Massachusetts provide some form of similar training, NAMI said. But Lewis said his goal is to get at least 25 percent of the officers in each department fully trained so a trained officer would be available on every shift.

“It is critically important that we strengthen police training as it relates to situations involving our residents who may be in a mental health or a substance abuse crisis. Our police officers in many cases have become the first responders for people experiencing such crises,” Lewis said. “Without appropriate training for our law enforcement, we know that these encounters can sadly lead to tragedy, people ending up in the criminal justice system when that is not necessary or even in worse cases, injury or death.”

Lewis estimates that the center would cost between $1.5 and $2 million annually, but said he would expect that investment to reduce the amount the state spends to incarcerate people. His bill is subject to appropriation by the Legislature, and Lewis said there may be an opportunity to secure funding in the fiscal 2017 state budget.

Support for the center stretches beyond the local police beat.

Koutoujian said he began his day Monday at the Middlesex House of Correction watching the 5:30 a.m. distribution of medication for inmates with mental health disorders. Forty-six percent of new prisoners admitted to the jail report a history of mental illness and about 30 percent of inmates are treated daily for mental health disorders, he said. On top of that, Koutoujian said, 80 percent of the jail population self-identify as having an issue with addiction of some kind.

“While I’m extremely proud of the efforts we’ve undertaken to address the underlying mental health and addiction issues of those placed in our custody,” the sheriff said, “many are low-level, non-violent offenders and the most effective treatment just may be in the community, and not inside a jail.”

NAMI said Lewis’s plan would help break down the silos of law enforcement and social services, reducing the number of arrests on the street, diverting low-level and non-violent offenders from the criminal justice system, and potentially reducing costs.

“Many police departments and their local behavioral health providers in Massachusetts don’t even know each other, they have never worked together and they operate in completely different silos responding day in and day out to the same individuals,” June Binney, director of NAMI’s Criminal Justice Diversion Project, said. “And mental health and substance abuse providers continue each to work in their own silos as if one epidemic has little to do with the other.”

— Written by Colin A. Young

Copyright State House News Service