Sunday, May 26, 2024

Somerville Police Department headquarters on Washington Street. (Photo: Ryan DiLello)

Even as Somerville searches for a new police chief and plans to relocate and improve its police station, School Committee members have moved to distance officers from student discipline and the city’s Department of Racial and Social Justice is discussing a civilian oversight body to hold the force accountable.

Another group, meanwhile, seeks to form an emergency response alternative to police.

A meeting of the Public Health and Safety Committee held Feb. 27 and chaired by city councilor Charlotte Kelly invited experts to present on how alternative responders could benefit Somerville.

Investing in more non-police emergency responses could be an antidote for pressures facing the community and police during a national mental health crisis, the experts suggested.

An alternative emergency response refers to any unarmed, non-law enforcement worker typically called to address crises. During the three-hour meeting, the committee heard from a handful of mental health experts on response and design options and administrative guidelines, models used in other cities and tips for involving the community in the development.

The conversation could have ripple effects. The deadly shooting of Somerville High School graduate Arif Sayed Faisal in Cambridge on Jan. 4 inspired some 15 residents to call into a Redevelopment Authority board meeting that month to express concern over hosting police in a proposed public safety building on Washington Street. Several mentioned Faisal’s death as a reason to invest more in mental health support and less in the police.

Police are the reflex

A non-police response service is available to Somerville for residents’ mental health crises, but the Community Behavioral Health Clinic, the actual care site, is run out of Cambridge Hospital. “Not exactly a community-based location,” said Tobin Rodriguez, a ward 3 resident and director of emergency psychiatric emergency services for Boston Medical Center.

The need for a location in Somerville “is dire,” Rodriguez said.

Somerville also supports the national 988 number, a call line for those at risk of suicide or crisis. Samaritans can screen calls directly to the clinic in Cambridge, Rodriguez said.

But many residents call 911 when they see a behavioral health emergency, “which means police often receive the call,” Rodriguez said.

No alternative emergency response is available through 911, Rodriguez said.

“Start without the perfect thing”

Lauren Leone, a licensed mental health counselor, petitioned the city in 2020 for an alternative emergency response solution; more than 40 fellow Somerville therapists signed on. She provided an introduction Feb. 27 to what alternative public safety could look like in Somerville from firsthand experience: She is a volunteer with the Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, an alternative response program on the cusp of launching in Cambridge.

A true alternative response, Leone said, should minimize data gathering from people who call for help, as such reporting tends to affect marginalized communities disproportionately. When reporting is required, it should remain confidential and should not be used to harm those looking for support. Additionally, an alternative response should have the flexibility to replace police officers and mental health professionals with trained Samaritans, depending on the context. “There are people who will never feel safe around police, and maybe not even safe around mental health professionals,” Leone said. Responders should also share the experiences of the people they serve and never coerce or force services, she said.

Leone said community involvement would be key. “We need an authentic and robust community process to truly determine what alternative response is needed. It’s essential we engage people most impacted by mental health crises as experts in the creation of that model,” she said.

Pursuit of a perfect solution should not stall implementation. “We need to remember that community-based health responses require adequate funding and the faith in a multiyear process [in which] things can be flexible and iterative. We can start without the perfect thing in place and develop it,” Leone said.

Seeking a better way

Jim Vetter, a resident and executive director for the Social Emotional Learning Alliance of Massachusetts, an educational nonprofit based in Somerville, said Feb. 27 that he was one of many mental health professionals, advocates and volunteers who worked to put alternative emergency response on the priority list for Somerville’s 2023 fiscal year budget.

He was drawn to this work after growing up with his brother, John, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a young adult, Vetter said. When John was manic in public, Somerville police often picked him up and brought him to the hospital, where armed police officers guarded John’s bed, Vetter said. It didn’t take many incidents for Vetter to question this approach.

That lesson was driven home in October 2021, when Vetter heard a commotion outside his office window and saw three police officers restraining a Black man. During the 24-minute altercation, five police officers, two firefighters, two EMTs, a hook-and ladder-truck and an ambulance arrived to tend to the man.

“This person seemed in distress and it reminded me of times with my brother. I had read the stats,” Vetter said. “People with unmet mental health needs are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police.”

Faisal was in an emotional crisis when he was killed by police in Cambridge, where his family lives. He was self-harming with shards of glass and a long knife, and an officer shot him when he moved toward them still holding the knife, police said. Though experts say it’s doubtful an alternative responder would be brought to the scene of a crisis involving weapons, neither the citizen-led Heart program or a new city-led unarmed Community Safety Department with $3 million in funding have begun work in Cambridge.

Kelly did not respond to interview requests in the days after the meeting.