Mass. city mulls creation of non-police crisis response team

The Springfield Community Crisis Response Team would be comprised of one EMT or nurse and one clinician that would be available 24/7 to respond to non-violent 911 calls


The SCCRT would be comprised of one EMT or nurse and one clinician. The proposal calls for the team to be available 24/7 to respond to non-violent 911 calls.

Photo/Getty Images

Douglas Hook

Pioneer Valley Project is asking the city of Springfield for $250,000 for a Springfield Community Crisis Response Team. The team would provide a response when someone calls 911 in crisis and a police response is not needed.

The SCCRT would be comprised of one EMT or nurse and one clinician. The proposal calls for the team to be available 24/7 to respond to non-violent 911 calls.

However, a similar but not exact model of non-emergency crisis response exists in the city. As individuals transition into long-term recovery, Behavioural Health Network offers ongoing, longer-term outpatient services and residential recovery homes for individuals continuing with crisis issues.

The proposal from PVP is based on a program originally from Eugene, Oregon and created 31 years ago. It was established by the health center, White Bird, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS). Eugene is a medium-sized city with just over 160,000 in population and about 100 miles south of Portland.

The CAHOOTS model is being launched in numerous cities, including Denver, Oakland, Olympia, Portland, Maine, and others. Federal legislation could mandate states to create CAHOOTS-style programs in the near future.

The PVP says that the program would offer help and support for those that are intoxicated or suffering from a drug overdose. The team would respond to those saying they are suicidal, or might self-harm and other mental health issues.

President Joe Biden’s recent coronavirus relief bill calls for an estimated $1 billion over 10 years for states that set up mobile crisis teams, currently locally operated in a handful of places.

Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood and Pioneer Valley Project Director and Lead Organizer Tara Parrish have not agreed on much and have often been on the opposite ends of the spectrum in views.

But both mostly agree on the issue that police are not clinicians and don’t always have the training to respond to those in crisis.

“[Police] were never really given that much training in mental health and mental illness issues,” Clapprood told MassLive in November 2020. “Mental health can be disguising.”

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 Clapprood. She highlighted that percentage had doubled since March when coronavirus reached the city.

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.

Springfield Mayor Domenic J. 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.

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.

In 2016, the Springfield Police Department partnered with the BHN, a non-profit organization, that at first gave guidance to the police concerning crisis calls and then in November 2019, had the first crisis clinician join Springfield police officers on a crisis call.

BHN crisis clinician and Clinical Social Worker Sean Bannon was one of the first to join the department on calls.

It is widely agreed that mental illness is not, in and of itself, linked with criminal behavior. However, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health states 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.

“It’s not the same thing, if you look at the CAHOOTS model you can see that it’s not run by a law enforcement agency, a law enforcement agency is not involved in it,” Parrish said.

The CAHOOTS model was developed through discussions with the city government, police department, fire department, emergency medical services (EMS), mental health department and others.

When CAHOOTS was formed, the Eugene police and fire departments were a single entity called the Department of Public Safety. CAHOOTS was designed to be a hybrid service capable of handling noncriminal, non-emergency police and medical calls, as well as other requests for service that are not criminal or medical.

Eugene’s police and fire departments eventually split. CAHOOTS was absorbed into the police department’s budget and dispatch system. It continues to respond to requests typically handled by police and EMS with its integrated health care model.

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.

“We provide crisis response in the absence of police every single day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year through BHN,” said Matthew Leonie, program director of the emergency services and support program at BHN. “We’re the emergency services provider.”

Leonie went on to outline that BHN will see dozens of people daily without police being present but stressed that there are times where having a police presence is needed for the protection of his clinicians.

One of the differences that Parrish said is “fundamentally” different between BHN and the CAHOOTS model PVP is basing its program on is being able to transport patients to facilities such as the emergency department, crisis center, detox center or shelter free of charge.

“We’re always trying to look at what are the community resources as they stand,” Leonie told MassLive. “There are a lot of different agencies doing a lot of great work, including BHN, but many others that we collaborate with and partner with that do different things. Our view is that it does take a village. We can all work together.”

Without emergency services like the police, fire service or private companies like the ambulance service, transportation to locations like BHN is difficult. That is what PVP is proposing Rev. David Lewis Sr. clarified to MassLive.

“We’re talking about non-violent and mental health and substance abuse issues,” said Lewis, who emphasized the relationship that the Springfield Police Department has historically with the city’s minority community.

“Because of the history with policing, in not only the nation but also here in Springfield,” said Lewis. “Police coming is adding to the trauma, adding to the crisis.

Lewis said that the training of 911 operators to address those needing crisis intervention and a vehicle transporting people in crisis to locations that fit the needs of those calling the service are vital.

The CAHOOTS program budget is about $2.1 million annually, while the combined annual budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90 million.

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 program.

BHN received two grants from the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health 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 receives operational funds to support the Center, BHN received $140,000 for startup costs for the Training Center.

MassLive inquired on the specifics of what the $250,000 would be used for if the program was given the green light. However, although Parrish was not able to give specifics, she did state that it would go to training 911 operators on the new model, a transport vehicle and administrative costs.

CAHOOTS Program Manager Tim Black told OregonLive that it’s an approach that has shown measurable impact over the past 30 years. He estimates CAHOOTS saves $7 million annually in medical costs because the people they help would otherwise end up in emergency rooms.

CAHOOTS deploys two vans with two workers each who log about 110 hours daily in staggered shifts. Combined, they field about 20% of calls that come into 911 and the non-emergency line.

Only about 10% of CAHOOTS responses require help from other public safety agencies. Black said the key is that his team works with public safety, but isn’t beholden to them. That allows them to respond with different tools, and a different mindset.

Parrish also told MassLive that the majority of the money would be reimbursed through the American Rescue Plan Act. She stated that over the next three years, 85% of the $250,000 would be reimbursed through that aid.

Tucked into the $1.86 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, commonly known as the COVID relief bill, is a funding incentive meant to encourage communities to create programs that mirror CAHOOTS.

The provision allows communities to be reimbursed by Medicaid for up to 85% of their service costs, with an initial $1 billion for those reimbursements.

Massachusetts received more than $5 billion in federal funding provided under the American Rescue Plan. Of that, Springfield will receive $97.5 million.

If you are in crisis and would like support please reach out to BHN at: 413-733-6661, for Crisis Services 24/7.

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