Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Cambridge Heart volunteers hear the experiences of the Coalition of Racial Equity in Mental Health at a June 15 meeting. (Photo: Cambridge Heart)

The volunteer-founded organization that has been trying for more than a year to get support from the city to establish a non-police, unarmed response to people in distress now has money from the state. And that will enable the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team to start answering emergency calls this summer, co-director Corinne Espinoza said Monday.

The two years of state funds will allow Heart to buy a van and “equipment and software for our dispatch infrastructure,” Espinoza said in an email. The organization also expects to set up its own telephone number so people can call for help. Donations and foundation grants totaling $750,000 have funded Heart until now, according to its website. The organization hasn’t been able to respond to emergencies, Espinoza said.

Last spring, Heart first asked Cambridge for $5.5 million over two years from the city’s allocation of federal pandemic aid under the American Rescue Plan Act. City officials asked the organization in the fall to slash its Arpa request to $300,000, and Heart submitted the new proposal in December for money that would pay for a social worker to support the organization’s paid responders, as well as other responder support and partial salaries, Espinoza said.


Heart also expects to submit a contract proposal to provide services to the city, but is deciding what to offer, Espinoza said. The new city department established to provide the city’s own version of alternate response, the Community Safety Department, has asked local human services agencies to propose services they could give the new department.

Meanwhile, Heart learned of its state grant in December, Espinoza said. The organization was one of 11 community groups that will share $2.9 million from the state attorney general’s mental health diversionary grant program, according to an announcement from then Attorney General Maura Healy, now governor. Heart got $250,000, said Thomas F. Dalton, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office. From the descriptions of the other grant recipients and their proposals, none proposed a non-police alternate response to emergency calls.

The state grant won’t change Heart’s need for money from Cambridge. “We do not know if the Commonwealth will fund us after the two years, there are no guarantees or commitments from them. We wrote the state grant application and the Arpa grant application for different needs [so] what we request in federal Arpa funds administered by the city will remain unchanged,” Espinoza said.

Offering another way

Cambridge Heart grew out of the local reaction to the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. It was part of the call to defund police and find other ways to deal with situations that might not require an armed police officer, such as traffic violations or people in mental health crisis. A group of black Cambridge women formed The Black Response to press for spending less on police and more on unarmed alternatives; one result was Heart, which is closely allied with The Black Response.

City councillors had called for a study of alternatives to policing as early as the month after Floyd’s death. In January 2021 the council formed a task force to examine the issue; it came up with the idea of the community safety department rather than Heart. Still, in June 2021 the council expressed support for Heart and the new department, but sent the Heart proposal to former city manager Louis A. DePasquale for assessment.

By December 2021 the new department was on the way to being created, while Heart was still seeking funds from the city. That situation has essentially continued.

Response to a shooting

The Jan. 4 police shooting of Arif Sayed Faisal, 20, a Bangladeshi immigrant who lived with his family in Cambridgeport, renewed and strengthened calls to establish a non-police alternative response to emergency calls involving people in a mental health crisis. Faisal was seen cutting himself with a large knife called a kukri and led police on a chase around the neighborhood, continuing to harm himself. After officers caught up with him in a backyard on Chestnut Street, one shot him with a “less-than-lethal” foam-tipped projectile that had no effect, police said. Another officer then shot him with a gun when he moved toward police with the knife, and he died in a hospital.

Since Faisal’s death, city councillors have reacted by voting to include money for police body cameras in next year’s budget, but haven’t taken new action on Heart.

Heart’s request for Arpa funds is pending. Gianetti said the city expects to “draw up a contract shortly” with Heart for the Arpa funds.

Community Safety Department

The new Community Safety Department, meanwhile, has an interim director and a coordinator, but is not operating yet. City Manager Yi-An Huang moved the agency out of supervision by the emergency services department to lessen its connection to police.

City government spokesperson Lee Gianetti said plans for the new community safety department don’t call for a separate telephone number to summon non-police responders, and that 911 calls won’t be diverted to Heart. The city does “support” Heart having its own phone number “that community members can call to request resources,” Gianetti said.

“As the [city] department is further developed, we will consider including other ways for community members to request supportive services,” Gianetti said. “The city remains committed to ensuring the Cambridge community has access to non-police responses to crisis situations and creating a sense of safety for all who live, work, play and pray here. The development of the new Community Safety Department is guided by an understanding that a compassionate response to a mental health crisis is optimal for healing and deescalation.”

Gauging safety at a scene

One sticking point has been deciding whether unarmed responders will answer a call involving violence or a weapon such as a knife, similar to Faisal’s case. Many alternative response organizations around the country, including Cahoots, the model for Heart, have said they will usually or always call upon police in such a situation. Cambridge police have social workers, but they don’t participate in a response unless it is safe, officials have said.

Heart workers have been trained to deal with situations that police might consider unsafe, Espinoza said. The training in “deescalation, self-defense and situational awareness … gives them the confidence to respond to calls ”here a caller might identify that a knife (or other object that police might call a weapon) is on scene.”

“Once on scene, responders are able to assess whether a situation is safe and what steps are required to make a scene safe for them. None of our steps include an armed response. In fact, an armed response itself can escalate distress and trigger physiological human responses that make it hard for a person in distress to interact effectively with armed responders,” Espinoza said.

She added that “a knife being on the scene is not the same thing as an unsafe scene” and that unhoused people, for example, “may have a knife present for utility purposes” but still “deserve high-quality, holistic responses when they have emergencies.”

Heart has helped more than 500 people up to now, with emotional support, securing benefits and services, “material aid,” and “aftercare for domestic violence situations,” Espinoza said. Since Heart has no phone number as of now, individuals seeking help must contact the organization by email at [email protected].