Burlington PD Refine Response To Mental Health Crises

Justin Verette, a member of HowardCenter’s Street Outreach Team, works with Burlington Police Department to aid in emergency calls where mental health and social assistance is needed. Verette has worked in the position for over four years but most recently was issued a radio by police to keep in close contact with dispatchers if needed. (Photo: EMILY McMANAMY/FREE PRESS )Buy Photo

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Burlington’s police chief and a woman whose husband was shot in November by police during a mental health crisis presented an improved protocol for police responses in similar situations.

Police Chief Michael Schirling and Barbara Brunette spoke to Burlington City Council on Wednesday. After the presentation, councilors commended the two for their work with the Police Commission.

“Wayne would be so proud of the things that you’ve done and the people you have helped,” Burlington City Councilor David Hartnett, D-Ward 4, told Brunette, referring to her husband.

Wayne Brunette was fatally shot by police officers on Nov. 6 outside his Randy Lane home in Burlington. Police were responding to the report of a man with mental health issues wielding a shovel. Since her husband’s death, Barbara Brunette has been instrumental in helping create a better police response policy for working with those with mental health issues. The directive is titled “Interacting with Persons with Diminished Capacities.”

The directive, a five-page document, outlines a co-responder method where two officers respond to a call involving a person with “apparent or actual diminished capacity who is presenting a risk to themselves or others,” according to the document.

The policy does not require officers to make a diagnosis of whether the subject is mentally ill, but instead instructs the officers on how they should interact with the person while securing the surrounding area and maintaining public safety.

In order to help create this plan, Schirling said the Police Commission, starting in January, took another look at both statewide and national police department practices.

At the same time, the police commission gave a bigger role to a street outreach interventionist through the HowardCenter. Schirling said HowardCenter street outreach interventionist Justin Verette has been working with the department for more than four years to implement a procedure where Verette would make contact with people displaying symptoms of mental health, but do not pose an immediate danger to others around them.

“We pulled from some of the research we had already done implementing the street outreach interventionist program, and then scanned the landscape for other agencies experiences and best practices,” Schirling said.

Prior to January, Schirling said that Verette focused his efforts on proactive outreach. Verette made contact with those who called the police most frequently for mental health-related issues to try to keep them off the police department’s radar.

Now, Verette is deployed as a first responder to mental health calls where public safety is not an issue. He is pressed into service at least twice per day, according to Schirling.

“We’re putting someone in front of them who is dressed very much like a civilian,” Schirling said, adding that an officer in uniform wearing gear can sometimes cause a situation to worsen. “I think that in and of itself is a way to potentially deactivate or not exacerbate circumstances.”

In January, Verette was given a police radio for both his own safety — if he needs to call in back-up or listen to a possibly dangerous case from afar — and for his greater involvement, Schirling said.

“We’re out on the edge in the way we’re using civilian employees to respond directly in lieu of police officers to crises,” Schirling said.

The program is successful so far as it gets services to people who may not be best served by a police officer, according to Schirling. This is the best Schirling said the department can do to address the increase in mental health calls. He noted that the problem stems from the lack of state facilities for those with mental health issues.

Schirling cited a report that the Burlington Police Department has seen a 400 percent increase over the past five years in the calls they receive related to solely mental health issues.

“We simply do not have the resources to adequately respond to folks who have critical medical needs in the form of mental health care,” Schirling said. “There’s nothing that we’re going to do to solve that problem.”

On the ground

Verette, the street outreach interventionist, walked only about five feet from his College Street office on Thursday afternoon before he was stopped by an acquaintance. This proved not to be an unusual circumstance. People continued to greet him as he walked toward Church Street.

As a HowardCenter Street Outreach Team member and interventionist for the Burlington Police, it’s Verette’s job to know everyone.

Verette works with his supervisor and the Street Outreach Team leader Matt Young to keep track of Burlington residents who might have mental health or substance abuse issues.

“We are trying to reduce the reliance on the police department to respond to and address social service calls,” Young said.

Verette said his position has changed slightly when the Police Commission’s mental health initiative launched in January. He said the initiative has made his job busier but more effective. He has his own radio and police number, though his main job is to work with individuals in mental health crises whom police might not serve most effectively.

“I feel like I’m doing a lot more welfare checks than I was before,” Verette said. “I really like it where dispatch will just call and say, ‘Hey, the person we have on the line really doesn’t want to talk to an officer, but we’re not even sure if this is a mental health call. Is this something you’d be into talking to this person or going to meet with them?’”

Verette said his radio is often seen as a status symbol among some people with whom he works regularly, but it could also accidentally act as a fuse for a mental health crisis with others. In these cases, Verette simply turns the radio off and allows police to call him on his cell phone if he is needed.

“There’s people who are already paranoid, not in regards to me so much being connected to the PD, but who already hear voices,” Verette said. “This is kind of an added distraction, in a way.”

As a civilian going into possible crisis situations, Verette said he has never felt unsafe. Schirling has said the police department is doing as much as it can to minimize this risk by creating a simple way for dispatchers to distinguish a threatening situation from one that is nonthreatening. Verette said if he takes a client in his own car instead of sending the client with the police, the police will pat the person down beforehand.

“They’re professionals,” team leader Young said. “They’re not going to jeopardize our safety to make their life easier or to put a nice clinician at someone’s door.”

A second interventionist will be added in the near future, but Young said the HowardCenter is still looking for the right person. Verette said he is impressed with the police department’s overall initiative.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand how busy the PD is,” Verette said. “They’re putting in a lot of time and really working hard out there.”

The future of the program

The City Council received the plan on Wednesday night with rave reviews for the work Schirling, Brunette and the Police Commission had put into the directive.

“Because of your strength, because of your courage, because of your determination, you have made a lot of people’s lives better,” said Councilor Hartnett, who has also worked closely with Brunette and Schirling. “We don’t know who those people are, but it really doesn’t make any difference. These changes we are putting in place now have a lot to do with you and what you’ve done.”

Brunette also spoke for a few minutes at the beginning of public comment, sharing her thoughts on how far mental health work has come and how far it has to go. Brunette said she supports the use of Tasers instead of guns by law enforcement officials, and she said all officers should have a Taser in their toolkit.

Before thanking the council for their help, Brunette asked them to consider the need for a “better...less lethal option.” She added that she thinks the state has “dropped the ball” when it comes to mental health issues and treatment.

Brunette relayed a message from her daughter to the council. “We’re not looking for a magical solution, just a better approach, and it’s going to come to that in stages,” Brunette said. “This is the beginning, but it’s not the end. Changes have to keep being made.”

Contact Elizabeth Murray at 651-4835 or emurray@freepressmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LizMurraySMC.

Source : http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/local/2014/04/17/burlington-police-advocates-refine-response-mental-health-crises/7848769/

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