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Police improve mental health interactions

Daily Hampshire Gazette - 3/3/2018

For the Gazette

NORTHAMPTON — In an effort to improve interactions with people affected by mental illness, the Northampton Police Department has completed the “One Mind Campaign,” a challenge started by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Mental health issues have become a common focus in the law enforcement community in recent years, Police Chief Jody Kasper said, particularly in the wake of mass shootings and controversial police killings. She said that anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of calls to which Northampton Police respond include some mental health component.

“Recognizing mental health components early on, and recognizing different options in approaching any given situation, is really important,” Kasper said.

In order to join the One Mind Campaign, the department had to establish a partnership with a local mental health organization and implement a model policy for officers’ interactions with people with mental illness. The department also had to ensure that each of its 65 full-time officers received a basic level of training in mental health first aid and that at least 20 percent of its officers received extensive training in crisis intervention.

The department works most closely with ServiceNet, a social service organization that assists people with various forms of mental illness. Alex Spear, ServiceNet’s safety officer in the mental health division, is a former police officer and serves as the organization’s primary liaison to law enforcement agencies.

Spear began working with Northampton Police six years ago, and said he tries to help bridge communication gaps between officers and participants in his program.

“I help educate our program participants about why police need to do what they need to do … and I help educate police officers about how to approach individuals with mental health challenges,” Spear said.

“We really have been on the front lines of this issue for years,” Kasper said, adding that over half of the department’s officers have undergone a 40-hour crisis intervention training program.

Northampton is the first police department in western Massachusetts to join the campaign. The department completed the challenge in early February after its last officer received mental health first aid training, Kasper said Thursday. The department had already met the IACP’s other three criteria before joining the One Mind Campaign in June 2017, Kasper said.

According to Spear, the biggest misconception about people affected by mental illness is that they’re dangerous. He said that people with a history of mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it, and that people going through mental health crises are often driven more by fear than aggression.

Spear organizes listening sessions where he invites local police officers to sit down with ServiceNet participants. He encourages law enforcement agencies to build relationships with community members with mental health issues so that they can build a mutual trust and level of familiarity.

In the time since Kasper joined the Northampton police force, she said the department has significantly shifted its approach in dealing with people who have mental health issues.

“Historically, if we got a call about somebody laying in the road blocking a bus, we’d probably just arrest them,” Kasper said. “Now, we’d take a step back and say ‘wait a minute, what’s going on here?’ We look at these situations through a different lens and consider different policy alternatives.”

She said that de-escalation is key and that criminal justice intervention is not always the best way to bring about long-term positive outcomes to situations involving mentally ill people.

Another important element of Northampton’s approach is partnering with local mental health professionals. Officer Honora Sullivan-Chin was named as the department’s mental health liaison officer in 2017, and Lt. Craig Kirouac has served as the mental health liaison supervisor for many years, according to Kasper.

In an email sent to the Gazette Wednesday, ServiceNet Vice President of Mental Health Recovery Services Jeanne Bishop said that the organization appreciates the collaborative relationship it has with Northampton Police, and stressed that communication between the two organizations is pivotal.

“The more we communicate and the more we understand each other’s challenge, the better,” Bishop said.

While Spear said building relationships between police and the mental health community is an ongoing process, he feels “fortunate to have such a responsive police force here in Northampton, who view their work with us as a true partnership.” Gazette Staff Writer Emily Cutts contributed to this report. She can be reached a ecutts@gazettenet.com.

 
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