Mass. town to allocate $500K for unarmed crisis-response team

City officials estimated that the team could take 13% of emergency calls

By Cassie McGrath

LYNN, Mass. — Lynn city officials have approved a budget that will allocate $500,000 for an unarmed crisis-response team that would support people during mental health emergencies.

The funding comes after more than a year of talks between the mayor’s office and the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition, according to the Boston Globe. A pilot program is set to begin at the start of next year.

“Those who are going through a mental health crisis, that are homeless, they need extra help. But because of the color of their skin, they’re automatically looked at and addressed differently,” said Adriana Paz, president of Prevent the Cycle, a criminal justice advocacy group that is part of the coalition. “The purpose is to provide a behavioral health response to 911 calls when there’s not a worry of either a medical emergency or . . . of injury to self or others.”

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians, according to Brookings, causing the researchers to ask if the police should be involved in these incidents.

In another greater Boston community, Cambridge City Council approved a plan to create a “holistic‌ ‌emergency alternative response ‌team” for mental health crises, according to the Globe.

The city of Northampton has proposed a similar department, called the Department of Community Care, and Mayor David Narkewicz proposed a $424,000 budget for the department as well as seeking $150,000 from the state.

ALERT, the nickname for Lynn’s team, will be the first responders for nonviolent emergencies. They will not use weapons or force. The team will be made up of social workers and mental health counselors who have experience with helping people with challenges like housing insecurity and substance abuse.

“Police approach [people] threatening to control and subdue,” said the Rev. Bernadette Hickman-Maynard, president of the Essex County Community Organization and one of the RJC leaders. But “these people are going to have de-escalation skills, and also extensive training in racial and cultural sensitivity.”

This Lynn program is based on CAHOOTS, the Eugene, Oregon program that is the oldest unarmed crisis-response team in the United States. In 2019, they responded to roughly 20% of all 911 calls, saving $14 million in medical and transportation costs and saving the Eugene Police Department more than $8 million in a typical year, according to the Globe.

The Lynn RJC estimated their city’s team could take 13% of emergency calls. The Globe reported, that in 2019, “person in crisis” was the most often reason Lynn police’s used force.

Last summer, Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee provided $25,000 to the coalition to study the possibility of an alternative to traditional policing. Lynn’s population is 14% Black people and 43% Hispanic or Latino, and McGee hopes the crisis team better supports communities of color in addition to his other initiatives, according to the Globe.

The Lynn Police Association told the Globe they will continue participating in discussions about ALERT, but said that “it has to be realistic.”

“There are some public safety factors to adhere to in the community,” Thomas Reddy, a spokesman for the association said. “But we’re more than willing to work with everybody involved to try and get something done.”

The mayor said he looked forward to “creating an opportunity to address mental health, homelessness and other issues with people that focus specifically on those issues” and “take some of the things that the police have to deal with off their plate,” according to the Globe.

“I do believe that there is a wide range of crises, wider than we are proposing with ALERT, that could best be handled by a nonviolent approach,” Hickman-Maynard said. “That’s the future of public safety that keeps everybody safe.” She hopes ALERT will eventually respond to other nonviolent matters like noise and loitering.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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