Law enforcement responds to uptick in mental health crises

Law enforcement leaders join Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno in a news conference at the police headquarters. Photo by the Springfield Police Department

By Lianne Zana

The Springfield Police Department is putting a new emphasis on emotional stability by expanding clinical services in its police responses to accommodate individuals battling mental health crises.

The department has expanded its partnership with the Behavioral Health Network (BHN.) It now works with five BHN clinicians and one supervisor, who co-respond with officers to mental health calls. The initiative was introduced at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when mental health calls skyrocketed.

“There were more mental health calls during the pandemic because people were isolated and didn’t have programming to go to during the day,” HUB & COR Coordinator Stephanie Tonelli said. “There was a social element that people lost during the pandemic.”

Tonelli joined the Springfield Police Department’s Metro Unit three years ago. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and has been working in human services for the past 20 years. Prior to her work at the police department, Tonelli worked at Friends of the Homeless, a Springfield-based non-profit that offers shelter, food, clothing, and education for those living without a home. Tonelli said that her work at Friends of the Homeless helped prepare her for her work at the police department.

“There was a large presence of homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse,” Tonelli said.

A growing number of cities are pairing their police departments with mental health professionals to better assist people in crisis. Inadequate mental health services across the country have forced police officers to be the first to respond to mental health crises. It is estimated that mental health and/or substance abuse crises make up 20% of all police calls for service. Furthermore, since 2015, nearly a quarter of all people killed by police in America had a known mental illness.

The police department’s mental health innovation seeks to distinguish emotional crises from incidents that are strictly criminal in nature. Springfield’s police commissioner Cheryl Clapprood said that it is often difficult for officers to recognize problems associated with mental illness compared to commonly reported issues such as illegal drugs or gun violence.

“Clinicians are getting tips all the time when they go on calls as to what to look for and how to respond,” Clapprood said.

The clinicians who work with the police department are issued radios and accompany the officers to mental health calls. If neither the officer nor the clinician is needed, they go back into service, but if both are needed, they stay. The officers benefit by the partnership because they can observe how the clinicians deal with individuals in crisis.

Often, officers responding to mental health calls can better assess the situation with a clinician if the person in crisis has a history of similar incidents.

“More times than not, the clinician knows the person and has them in their records,” Clapprood added. “The clinician can tell you what kind of medication they should be on or what doctor they saw, and I think it’s making a big difference.”

Prior to the department’s mental health response initiative in 2019, officers responding to crises would call an ambulance and wait for a medical team to arrive. The individual in crisis would then be taken to the hospital, sectioned, evaluated, and released, only for the process to start all over again.

Ryan Walsh, who has served as the Springfield Police Department’s public information officer since 2017, said that the process by which mental health clinicians correspond with officers from the department has been a positive change for both the individual in crisis and the police officer responding.

“By adding a clinician to the mix, the officers are there first to make sure that it’s not going to be dangerous for the individual or the clinician responding.”

Neighboring towns have adopted similar measures to incorporate the guidance of mental health experts into their law enforcement efforts. About ten miles south of Springfield is the town of Suffield, Connecticut. The Suffield Police Department has established a partnership with a behavioral healthcare agency.

The town’s department was awarded a five-year, $1.6 million federal grant to better address mental health emergencies. The partnership works in a similar way to that of Springfield; mental health clinicians from an agency called Community Health Resource work side-by-side with officers when responding to mental health calls.

Data from the town’s grant application showed a sharp rise in opioid deaths in Suffield, East Windsor, East Granby, and Windsor Locks. Moreover, the four-town region also has four times as many suicides per year as the state average. Funding from the grant allows officers to expand crisis intervention training for police officers in Suffield and nearby towns.

Shirley Wilson has worked at Suffield’s MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield for the past 20 years. She’s spent the last 10 as a Correctional Transitional Instructor (CTI.)

Wilson said that evaluating inmates’ mental health is vital, because untreated mental illness can spawn criminal behaviors, even among those who have no history of illegal activity.

“There should be doors open for people who want to talk, no matter what it is about,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s job as a CTI involves helping inmates transition back into society before they are released from prison. She said there are ways that law enforcement can and should put a greater emphasis on mental health.

“It’s a matter of recognizing that anybody is capable of doing something illegal; perhaps all of us need help of some sort,” she said.

A growing number of police departments are building mental health into emergency responses. A nationwide survey of more than 2,400 senior law enforcement officials found that 84.28% of law enforcement respondents said there was an increase in the mentally ill population over the length of their career. It also found that police officers and sheriffs are dealing with the consequences of a policy change that removed the daily care of the nation’s mentally ill population from the medical community and placed it within the criminal justice system. The survey calls for the implementation of assisted outpatient treatment laws to lead people with mental illness back into the mental health system.

The Springfield Police Department’s mental health innovation has helped officers by better preparing them for the calls to which they’re responding and sticking to what they were trained to do.

“Police officers today are asked to be everything under the sun, including psychologists, and they have to make split second decisions,” Hampden County Sherriff Nick Cocchi said. “The better prepared we are to make a good, cognitive decision that is in the best interest of the safety of the public, the safety of the first responder, and the safety of the individual in crisis, the better the results will be.”

Modern-day police officers get extensive training in mental health services and interpersonal communication skills.

“That’s all good if the person can understand, dissect, and follow through with what the directives are.”

Cocchi said that there are times when the individual in crisis will not comply with the directives given by the first responder. This type of situation can escalate quickly and result in jail time or a higher level of force.

“When you’re in a mental health situation, sometimes your rational thinking isn’t at the forefront, and your irrational thinking can really spiral into criminal engagement. Having [clinicians] tagged with us to go into mental health situations is a very smart move and it only makes sense.”

About Lianne Zana 4 Articles
Lianne Zana is an Emerson College graduate student from Western Massachusetts. Born in Paris, France and raised in Longmeadow, Lianne has more than three years of experience in television news producing at WWLP-22News in Springfield. She attended University of Connecticut for her undergraduate studies, where she pursued a double-major in journalism and communication. Lianne plans to use the skills she's acquired at Emerson and WWLP to continue her work as a news producer in a larger market.