Boston City Council Explores Mental Health Clinicians Accompanying Police Dispatches

On Tuesday, Feb. 14, the Boston City Council opened a hearing to discuss an increase in investments for mental health clinicians to work alongside the Boston Police Department. Led by Councillors Annissa Essaibi-George—who heads the Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health and Recovery—and Ayanna Pressley (who is part of the same committee), the issue was presented in an effort to minimize arrests and ambulance calls and to offer those dealing with mental health issues a safer pathway to recovery.

“I believe this financial investment will result in fewer arrests, while connecting those battling mental illness and substance abuse disorders with the treatment and social services they so desperately need and deserve,” Councillor Pressley said in the hearing’s opening statements.

This reform would, according to councillors and BPD Commissioner William Evans, ideally push for one on-call patrol car that focuses solely on incidents involving those with mental health issues in each city district. A mental health clinician from the Boston Emergency Services Team (BEST) program would accompany police officers in each of these cars. The program would be included within the city’s budget and would cost an estimated $100,000 annually.

Currently, there are only two mental health clinician positions in the BEST program that accompany Boston police officers on ride-along operations. As of now, these two positions are vacant because of the BEST program’s reliance on state and federal grants; when money has to be renewed on an annual or biannual basis, those holding the jobs are not necessarily guaranteed stable employment.

“The instability of grant funds is really a problem when it comes to this type of relationship, where [the clinicians] really have to earn officers’ trust,” said Jenna Savage, senior research coordinator for the BPD. “It’s not easy taking a civilian to ride along.”

This initiative for increased mental health clinician aid comes amid reports highlighting inefficiencies—both economic and social—in the city’s treatment of those with mental health issues. According to the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, 67 percent of incarcerated males and 75 percent of incarcerated females are diagnosed with mental health issues and substance abuse issues.

According to Boston EMS Chief Jim Hooley, of the over 125,000 incidents that the city’s EMS responded to last year, those involving an “emotionally disturbed person” accounted for 8,928. Chief Hooley also stated that there has been a 2 percent annual increase since 2012 in incidents involving emotionally disturbed individuals.

“Locking up emotionally disturbed individuals isn’t the solution, it’s getting them care,” said Williams Evans, commissioner of the BPD.

On top of the social and psychological benefits cited in favor of the initiative at the hearing, economic benefits were also discussed. According to the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, 93 ambulance or emergency service situations were avoided between Jan. 1 and June 30 of last year as a result of mental health clinicians successfully mediating situations involving those experiencing mental health issues. This saved the city about $372,000.

This initiative comes at the heels of the October police shooting of South End resident Terrence Coleman, who had been dealing with mental illness. The nature of the shooting has been subject to public dispute and has been under independent investigation. According to The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, almost half of those killed by Massachusetts police since 2005 have been mentally ill.

Police officers in Boston currently receive crisis intervention training in how to handle situations involving people with mental health diagnoses; EMS personnel receive an even more extensive training program.

Zach Mobrice is an intern at Spare Change News. A native of Rhode Island, Zach studies journalism at Roger Williams University.

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