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Police exploring alternatives to mental health calls

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/18/2021 5:07:33 PM
Modified: 4/18/2021 5:07:33 PM

RANDOLPH — Orange County officials are looking at better ways to address mental health crises through a focus on de-escalation tactics, peer support, and collaboration between police and mental health experts.

“There are many gaps in the mental health system of care,” Laurie Emerson, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Vermont, said in an interview last week. “We’re creating a panel discussion in different communities…. how do we create more urgent mental health care opportunities?”

The most recent of those events was held virtually in Orange County Wednesday night, and included a short clip from the 2019 documentary Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops, about Texas police officers working in their department’s mental health unit, along with an hour-long discussion about mental health response in Orange County.

During the discussion, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Scott Clouatre detailed some of the ways deputies currently respond to mental health calls, and what kind of mental health services they hope to implement in the future.

Clouatre said the department trains deputies in deescalation tactics, and better ways to respond to mental health calls without resorting to force or forceful language.

“We’re trying to mold the deputies into having that softer approach,” he said.

Additionally, before responding to any mental health call, deputies will reach out to staff at the Clara Martin Center, which provides behavioral-health services in Orange County, for assistance and develop a plan to assess what police “bring to the scene” in terms of resources and help. If the crisis escalates, deputies will “fall back and reassess” the situation he said.

“It’s about having that plan prior to going in,” Clouatre said. “We try to slow things down.”

The discussion follows several high-profile cases involving mental health issues and police. The latest in the Upper Valley involved a standoff in Claremont, N.H., when Jeffrey Ely, whom friends believed to be suffering a mental health crisis, was shot dead by members of the New Hampshire State Police SWAT team in what authorities said was an exchange of gunfire.

The shooting drew criticism from mental health experts in the Upper Valley, as well as Ely’s friends, at least one of whom questioned whether deadly force was necessary.

Avoiding situations like the one in Claremont have to do with the plan police form before getting to a scene, as well as the equipment they use, Clouatre said. He noted that Orange County Sheriff’s deputies have never fired their stun guns while responding to a call.

Clouatre said departments around Vermont are investing in “less than lethal” weapons to avoid causing serious injuries during a mental health crisis. Those weapons include shotguns that shoot beanbags rather than bullets, and a device that fires a snare to restrict a person’s movement.

“We were talking about trying to get a mental health commission on staff,” Clouatre said of another way to improve police response to mental health calls. However, Sheriff Bill Bohnyak, who also spoke at the meeting, said a lack of funding can prevent the department from implementing more mental health programs and equipment.

During the discussion Wednesday, some members of the public asked about ways to reduce police involvement in mental health crises calls in order to reduce the risk of escalating the situation.

“Sometimes there are situations where that makes sense,” said Clara Martin Center Director of Access and Acute Care Services Kristen Briggs. She said when there’s no or little threat of danger, mental health experts will try to meet with a person experiencing a crisis one-on-one. However, when the center thinks there might be a safety risk in meeting someone suffering a mental health crisis, they need to bring in police, she said.

Briggs said experts with the center are working on more proactive programs to address mental health in the community before it rises to the level of police involvement.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, they have only ramped up that approach as more people started reaching out for help.

“We’re putting more focus on how to better support the community,” following the pandemic, Briggs said.

The proactive approach includes talking with people who are struggling with mental health issues, and either setting up times for them to come to the center to talk or — if a person isn’t comfortable with that — meeting them somewhere public in the community.

Clara Martin staff have also started a new in-person mental health training for teens, geared toward teaching high school students ways to cope with their own mental health issues and ways to support friends who are struggling, Briggs said.

Organizers will continue to host similar discussions about police response in different counties around Vermont, with the next visits planned for Newport and Burlington.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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