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Lebanon councilors call on city to study social changes to police force

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/12/2020 8:05:54 PM
Modified: 7/13/2020 9:20:28 PM

LEBANON — City Councilor Sue Prentiss was driving down Route 12A in Lebanon on a hot day a few years ago when she noticed a man and his dog outside.

The man, she recalled, looked as though he may have been homeless and might need help finding housing, so Prentiss picked up the phone and called Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello.

“What’s the protocol here because I’m not calling police to say ‘Go get ’em,’ ” she remembers asking. “But maybe this person needs help.”

At the time, Lebanon’s police department was ready to help.

Officers had been working alongside groups like the Upper Valley Haven, Listen Community Services and the city’s human resources department to curb homelessness in West Lebanon. They routinely went out on patrols ready to connect people with aid, visiting tents to check on those living in a lot near the Hannaford supermarket and even delivering blankets.

But like so many Americans questioning the role of police after the death of George Floyd, Prentiss isn’t so sure that armed officers are best equipped to respond to all emergency calls.

She and some fellow councilors are now calling on the city to study other ways it could respond with the help of social services.

“We have to examine all of these options, and now is the time to do it,” Prentiss said in a phone interview last week.

“I don’t want this to become a discussion and have everybody caught off guard and have to think about this in a compressed time frame,” she added. “We have some time now to think.”

Prentiss — who spent six years as the manager of emergency services at Concord Hospital’s emergency department — said recent changes made by emergency medical services could serve as models.

Paramedics and fire departments across the country have created new programs and changed the way they operate, especially in northern New England, where the opioid epidemic and an aging population have changed the nature of ambulance calls.

“It’s not all lights and sirens anymore,” said Prentiss, who also served as the state’s EMS bureau chief from 2002 to 2010

Prentiss pointed to the growing number of community paramedics as one response. The paramedics can go to non-urgent 911 calls, follow up with people who recently returned from the hospital and connect patients to public health groups, home health agencies and local hospitals.

“If we could do it in EMS, I actually think we could do it in law enforcement,” Prentiss said.

She also pointed to Concord, which has two mobile integrated health care programs, akin to community paramedic initiatives.

The first has paramedics and police work alongside Riverbend Community Mental Health Center’s mobile crisis teams, which specialize in helping those with severe emotional or behavioral disturbance, or a psychiatric emergency.

Another is Project First, a state program trains and funds first responders who encounter someone who is overdosing to conduct follow-up visits and offer resources for treatment or medication.

Jeffrey Stewart, who directs Concord’s Project First program, said he assesses patients, helps identify barriers to treatment and tracks their progress. He also distributes the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone to patients and families.

“We can better manage the patient and it improves lines of communication between the EMS agency, the mental health hospital as well as Concord Hospital,” he said. “Our communication lines are much better and we can help the patient manager better.”

Closer to home, Hartford has made steps to integrate social service work into its policing practices.

In 2016, the Hartford Police Department hired social worker Whitney Hussong to help train officers and monitor the care of people after a mental health call.

The position — a partnership with Brattleboro-based Health Care & Rehabilitative Services of Southern Vermont — acts as a “critical link” between police, those experiencing mental health problems and the Upper Valley’s social service agencies, according to Police Chief Phil Kasten.

Hussong has access to officers and call information, but also acts as a bridge that can help people find care and follow up on their progress, Kasten said.

She also helps police connect with service providers and people within the community. That way, officers aren’t meeting people for the first time or having to scramble for help while responding to a 911 call.

“It’s the way of doing business,” Kasten said of the approach, which is funded through federal grants. “It’s community policing, it’s collaborating, it’s working together, it’s recognizing and acknowledging that the police don’t necessarily have the answer to everything.”

Mello, Lebanon’s police chief, said he’s open to incorporating some form of social services into the department’s work, but at least one big challenge stands in the way: funding.

Lebanon’s department heads were instructed earlier this year to plan level-funded budgets for 2021 in an attempt to keep tax increases within 3%. That means no new staff positions, particularly those footed by taxpayers.

“I don’t see how it could be funded out of the city budget unless the Council was to provide the funding to do so,” he said. “That’s a difficult thing.”

Instead, Mello said the police department could look for a partner organization to assist in mental health calls.

He pointed to an existing partnership with WISE, a nonprofit that offers support and prevention services related to gender-based violence, as an example.

Whenever police respond to a domestic or sexual assault call, they put the victim with WISE advocates “right there and at the scene,” Mello said. “Something like that as a model could work if we had aid organizations on board to provide those services on an as-needed basis.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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