A call comes in from emergency medical technicians who are first responders working with a man in crisis at a Springfield location. The man is anxious, on edge, and he expresses fear that he may have contracted COVID-19. He is desperate for help and needs reassurance, and the EMTs on the scene ask for police assistance.
In seconds, Sean Bannon, a crisis clinician, jumps into his Jeep parked in the police substation garage on Dwight Street and rushes to the scene.
Veteran Springfield Police Officers Carla Daniele and Sergeant Brian Elliot, who are both part of the C3 neighborhood unit, follow in their cruiser to offer any assistance and protection Bannon, who works for the Behavioral Health Network, might need on scene.
A partnership formed in 2016 between Springfield’s police department and BHN, a non-profit organization, is designed to aid those in crisis and ease the strain on emergency services. Back in 2016 BHN was only providing training and advice. It wasn’t until Nov. 2019 that Bannon joined Springfield police officers on their patrols for the first time.
Once at the scene Bannon and the officers observed the man was agitated, shifting his body weight from one foot to the other. He gestured with his hands while talking, in short, sharp movements.
“[Police] were never really given that much training in mental health and mental illness issues,” Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood told MassLive. “Mental health can be disguising.”
Springfield’s police department is not the only department dealing with both a lack of training and a growing number of calls related to mental health issues. It’s a common problem across the country.
Mental illness is not, in and of itself, linked with criminal behavior. However, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health state that up to 10% of all police calls involve a person with a mental disorder – and 15% to 31% of individuals in US jails and prisons are reported to suffer from mental illness.
In Springfield and before the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 30% of all 911 calls to the Springfield police department involved a person suffering a mental health crisis, according to Commissioner Clapprood. She highlighted that percentage had doubled since March when coronavirus reached the city.
People can find police intimidating at times, and just their presence can create unintended stress and potentially make a tense situation worse for someone in a fragile state of mind. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno highlighted this when talking about the value of the BHN and Springfield police partnership
“Sometimes a person might not want to speak to a police officer,” said Sarno. “Even though the police officers are there to help them. They want to speak to someone that can relate to them.”
Springfield Police Officer Elizabeth Torres told MassLive during a recent interview following a call to a recent mental health crisis in the city that people can be intimidated by her firearm, as well as other equipment she and fellow police officers must carry.
In 2015, police and city officials realized that there was a problem when it came to dealing with mental health calls. They started to look at how they could better address the growing issue and at the way other districts work with mental health specialists and organizations.
Sarno and former Police Commissioner John Barbieri both traveled to Chelsea in March 2015 to meet with Chelsea Police Department officials to look at a system called HUB and Centre of Responsibility program. Along with Canadian police officials, Chelsea police demonstrated the initiative that, simply put, reduces crime.
The Canadian Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police saw success in reducing crime through the cohesion of social workers, teachers, police and similar front-line workers that discuss individual needs and how best to make sure people in crisis receive the assistance they require.
It should be noted that the groups involved can only speak often in generalities to ensure that each citizen’s privacy and rights are observed.
Back on the scene with the agitated resident, EMTs attempt to calm the man, who is anxious at the thought of becoming infected with coronavirus. The volume level of his speech becomes increasingly elevated, and his distress is apparent to all. Bannon arrives within moments of the initial call. He walks over calmly, albeit understanding the urgency of the matter at hand, and sparks up a conversation with the man.
From across the street, Elliott and Daniele stand back rather than taking point, watching how Bannon interacts with the man. His calm technique de-escalates the tense atmosphere.
Elliott and Daniele have seen Bannon and other clinicians do this work many times before and trust implicitly they are the best option for handling this type of crisis.
The Technical Assistance Policy Analysis Gains Center noted that people whose mental illness is left untreated, sometimes act in ways that the general public considers to be frightening or threatening. When effective treatment is available, people with mental disorders generally, except in rare circumstances, present no greater risk to the community than people in the general population.
When speaking with individuals in crisis, Bannon told MassLive, it’s mostly about listening to their problems and attempting to find a solution. Bannon doesn’t work for the police department, although he is usually based at the police substation at 75 Dwight Street.
“He steps in with skills that we don’t always have,” said Springfield Officer Torres. “It’s nice that someone who was a civilian can step in and help us out and be able to calm somebody down.”
Torres had recently joined the department after previously working in a hospital, she told MassLive. She added that having clinicians like Bannon step in really helps in many tense situations where a person might be in crisis.
The need to divert people, when appropriate and safe, from the criminal justice system and toward needed community-based treatment is seen as a national priority, according to the Department of Mental Health.
Through state funds appropriated by the Massachusetts Legislature, the Department of Mental Health funds Jail Diversion Program grants for collaborative mental health and law enforcement responses. A Framingham based clinical services organization, Advocates reported that 75% of individuals that show criminal behavior are diverted from arrest and into appropriate treatment as a result of the programs like the one in Springfield.
Springfield didn’t stop with just the HUB and COR program, the police have adopted a variety of programs to help youth, the homeless and those with mental health issues.
In 2019, more than $4.5 million was distributed to 53 communities and five clinical service centers across the Bay State. The Springfield Police Department has been awarded $80,000 to support CIT training and Springfield’s Homeless Outreach Provider Engagement (HOPE) program.
BHN will receive two grants from DMH in 2020; $228,800 to support a Police Drop Off Center, and $212,798 for Crisis Intervention Team Training and Technical Assistance Center. The center provides support for Springfield police and a number of other area law enforcement.
The non-profit also receive operational funds to support the Center, BHN received $140,000 for startup costs for the Training Center.
CIT and Co-Response are two distinct models of police JDP projects. Typically, a police department selects one or the other model to use, however, larger police departments may adopt several distinct models and operate many at a time.
Bannon, a qualified clinical social worker with BHN, joined the Crisis Intervention Team. To gain the qualifications of a clinician, Bannon had to train for four years to earn a master’s degree in social work and another three to qualify for the role of crisis clinician.
BHN is a regional provider of comprehensive behavioral health services for adults, children and families with life challenges due to mental illness.
The partnership between the police and BHN was serendipitous. The BHN building used to be next door to the police station and a mutual relationship of helping each other began.
“It was a kinda accidental chicken pot pie that we kinda meshed together and said,” Clapprood told MassLive. “This could be a good partnership.”
There are three clinicians attached to CIT that work in shifts seven days a week. They each have call signs, BH1, BH2 and BH3. Bannon working the first shift is known as BH1.
From 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. each BH call sign on duty. Saturday a clinician will be on call from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. and Sunday BH3 will work 6 p.m. until 2 a.m.
“People who have serious mental health problems and histories of trauma are often best-served by being connected to appropriate services rather than incarceration and DMH supports are targeted to grow the skillset of law enforcement professionals to immediately make referrals to services as the safest and most humane intervention,” a spokesperson from DMH told MassLive.
Clapprood expressed that it takes a special type of person to go out with the police and work as a clinician. They are exposed to traumatic sights and experiences that police regularly face.
“I find that the best clinicians are usually the veterans,” said Clapprood. “They’re used to dealing with traumatic episodes. They’re used to dealing with violence.”
Bannon, an Iraq veteran with the U.S. Army, told MassLive that his experiences in the military have enabled him to better understand and relate to many of the people he interacts with.
“I get it and not just from a clinical standpoint, I’ve lived it. I understand because when I was in the military after it happened and say that I got out and I was going to therapy and you know, the military mandates that you go through therapy after trauma and a traumatic event,” said Bannon. “So, I can 100% relate to these people.”
Many of the people that are suffering from a mental health crisis are themselves, victims. Having police respond to a crisis call can sometimes be counterproductive.
DMH stated that most people suffering from a mental illness are more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator of a crime. With that in mind, programs have been appearing across the country to address the growing concern that mentally ill persons are often mistaken for criminals.
Traditionally, police officers are not trained to deal with individuals suffering from a psychological crisis. Police will either send them to the hospital or take them to the police station to remove them from any situation they may harm themselves or others.
“Then what happens is that person has that cost of going to the ER, they have those long waits there,” said Matthew Leonie, program director of the emergency services and support program at BHN. He added that there were times where they get discharged before seeing crisis services.
Former Vice President, now President-elect Joe Biden spoke briefly on this during the first presidential debate with President Donald J. Trump. He spoke of his intention to embed social workers into police departments across the U.S.
“It just wasn’t efficient, I think at one point in time those calls for [crisis] service were the highest,” said Leonie. “So, it just made sense for us to work together.”
As a result, officers are given the option of further training through BHN and around 30% of the department took up the program.
Recently, Bannon was promoted to law enforcement program coordinator at BHN and another clinician has taken over his role on the team.
“I don’t care who you are, everybody wants to tell their story,” said Daniele who has been on the force since the mid-’90s. “It’s just about giving people a few minutes.”