LONGMEADOW — As awareness of the widespread nature of mental health issues has grown in recent years, so too have efforts by police departments to add mental health professionals to the toolbox of ways to address emergency calls.

In 2023, amid several high-profile incidents involving police officers and people with disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises, the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services released joint guidance for “Emergency Responses to People with Behavioral Health or Other Disabilities.” The document states, “Research has shown that as many as 10 % of all police calls involve a person with a serious mental illness. Other estimates indicate that 17% of use of force cases involve a person with a serious mental illness, and such individuals face 11.6 times the risk of experiencing a police use of force faced by persons without a serious mental illness. Further, while representing only 22% of the population, individuals with disabilities may account for 30% to 50% of incidents of police use of force.”

The guidance went on to say that “dispatching a co-responder team that includes a police officer and a mental health specialist may be a reasonable modification.”

The police departments in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow began such a program at the start of the year by partnering with CHD, a CARF accredited, nonprofit mental healthcare program serving Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Clinician Jaime Frazier operates from either of the two police stations on weekdays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. While Frazier works a set schedule, she emphasized that CHD and Behavioral Health Network have accessible services around the clock.

Longmeadow Police Sgt. Robert Lombardi explained that, as part of the exploration into the program, the nonprofit organization known as Advocates, conducted a data review in fall 2022 of the previous year’s calls to determine if they warranted a full-time clinician. That review showed that the two towns received a combined 1,392 calls, fairly evenly split — 687 in Longmeadow, 705 in East Longmeadow — in the periods examined “where a co-response clinician could potentially be utilized.” The clinician’s schedule was determined by the time of day in which those calls were received, Lombardi said.

Longmeadow Police Chief Robert Stocks said his understanding of what people in need of mental health services “look like” has broadened to include situations such as “someone who receives a death notification” from the police or has a house break-in. That’s traumatic.”

How it works

When officers respond to a call, they assess the situation. If they determine there is a mental or behavioral health factor and the situation is safe from immediate danger, they call Frazier to the scene.

Frazier provides more than an ear to listen. She acts as a liaison between the individuals and various resources and programs in the area. Some calls do not require Frazier’s attendance, but she said she will go through call logs and follow up with individuals who may benefit from mental and behavioral health services. Lombardi said the clinician also checks in with people who may have declined services on site to see if they have changed their mind. Frazier said she gives her work cellphone number to people so they can contact her without going through the police or 911.

Since the program began in late January, Frazier has attended or followed up with over 20 calls in Longmeadow, and there were about 30 calls in East Longmeadow in February alone.

CHD Vice President of Community Engagement Benjamin Craft said the program “takes some of the heat off the police’s responsibility.” East Longmeadow Police Chief Mark Williams clarified that when people struggling with mental health issues are connected with appropriate resources, they are less likely to be the source of emergency calls in the future.

“I really like this program,” Stocks said. Some other programs have clinicians answering calls on their own, which Stocks said can be dangerous. He added that, while Frazier will sometimes ride along in a cruiser, “We only bring Jaime in when it’s safe. We de-escalate and then hand it off.”

Stocks said that partnering with CHD has been a “win-win for everybody” as it has allowed the department to “broaden its services” while putting people with mental health needs in touch with appropriate services and diverting them from either being put into police custody or brought to a hospital’s emergency department.

Williams said, “The emergency room is not a great place for an emergent mental health need. We know over the years of doing this, that wasn’t always the best option.” At the same time, he said, “Bringing this person into custody isn’t the best option for the person or society.”

Police training

Lombardi said the amount of training for police to recognize and handle people in a mental health crisis has increased greatly in the past few years. This is partly in response to a 2020 state law requiring such training regarding “victims, witnesses or suspects with mental illness, substance use disorder, trauma history or developmental or intellectual disabilities.”

Stocks said, “I give my officers all the training under the sun.”

Williams explained that officers receive crisis intervention training — a 40-hour training program with annual refreshers — as well as real-world experience. “I think officers can develop a good sense.”
He said the first thing officers need to do after addressing immediate safety needs is talk to people. He said they need to determine, “Can I bring this person somewhere safe for them or am I putting someone else in danger? Are they in danger of imminent harm to themselves?”

Frazier added that even if a person is non-verbal, there are ways officers can communicate. “All of these officers are amazing on these scenes,” Frazier said.

“Not all calls that come in are that high-stress call,” Stocks said. He said it is important that officers build a rapport with the community, which can be helpful in those circumstances.

Still, CHD Clinical Supervisor Tania Monteiro said providing a civilian to speak to can be key. “It makes a difference when talking to someone wearing a uniform. Some people prefer a uniform, others don’t.” She noted people are sometimes afraid they will be in trouble if they talk to an officer, especially if there is drug use involved.

“They let their guard down” with a civilian, Frazier said.

Working together

When it comes to working with police, Monteiro said Frazier has acclimated quickly. Stocks added that CHD made sure that the person working with the departments was a good fit and vice versa.

“I think it’s hard for law enforcement to open up,” Frazier said. Referring to the officers in both towns, she said, “I think they’ve done great.” Williams said that there needs to be a sense of trust between both sides of the partnership.

As Frazier needs access to certain documents in her work, a background check was performed before she was placed with the departments. Frazier, who has a master’s degree in clinical mental health, had also worked with a similar public-private program in Oregon.

“That was a selling feature” for officers who may otherwise have been less than comfortable with a civilian in the station, working alongside them, Lombardi said.

Craft said similar programs are in place in several surrounding communities, including Chicopee, South Hadley, Granby, Ludlow, Belchertown and Springfield.

Stocks said the state is encouraging such programs and has made grants available to support them. Longmeadow and East Longmeadow were the recipients of one such grant, which funds the program for one year. Lombardi, who applied for and has administered the grant, said the departments will certainly apply for a new year of funding in April.