St. Albans City police cruiser

ST. ALBANS CITY — More than halfway through its inaugural year, the St. Albans City Police Advisory Board is seeking new goals and tangible outcomes.

At its Aug. 24 meeting, members in attendance looked to the future and set two unofficial goals: invest in further equity training for the board and police department and equip SAPD to better handle mental health-related calls.

Formed in August 2020 in the wake of local and nationwide demonstrations over police methods, the Police Advisory Board’s mission is to “offer advice to SAPD for the successful implementation of 21st century policing strategies.” The board is also tasked with assisting the department in following the “Police Transformation Road Map” established by the City Council.

At recent meetings, the board has looked at SAPD policies with Chief Maurice Lamothe and recommended revisions to go before the City Council for implementation. Members include Melinda White, Jamie Pinkham, Kris Lukens, Tom Benton, Danielle Lindley Mitchell, Winnie Wilkinson and John Nicholls.

At the Aug. 24 meeting, board members discussed the value of training for both the board itself and the city’s police department, as well as how the board and the community at large can provide better resources to help with mental health and substance abuse challenges.

Chair Melinda White said investing in diversity training is important.

“We’ve identified, as time has gone on, a lack of training, a lack of awareness,” she said.

The board had discussed how SAPD responds to mental health in previous meetings, asking Lamothe for addiction and mental health arrest data.

Lamothe noted that a mental health category is included in SAPD’s database, according to Feb. 24 meeting minutes, but he said it is subjective data because it asks for the officer to judge the health status of the person.

In April, 15 of SPD’s 843 recorded calls were classified as a “Mental Health Issue” according to the department’s monthly report. In May, 21 out of 885 calls were deemed mental health-related.

In the year 2020, 347 calls were under that classification, said Lamothe in an Aug. 31 phone call. The chief similarly noted however possible subjectivity when reporting such calls.

White concluded that she would invite the Northwestern Counseling and Support Services (NCSS) clinician embedded in SPD, Sam Weber and Chief Lamothe to a future meeting to learn what additional resources, if any, are needed.

“I’ve been vocal since the beginning that this is one of the topics I am most passionate about,” White said. “It definitely warrants an agenda item in the next meeting.”

Suggestions for training

At the Aug. 24 meeting, board members offered suggestions for training.

Nikki Fuller, the owner and senior consultant of Workplace Matters, PLLC, in Williston, previously provided implicit bias training for the group. White said she hopes Fuller could return to conduct equity training for both SAPD and the board.

“I can’t see how it would hurt, especially now, to have it be aligned with the same training that law enforcement gets, I think that's beneficial too,” White said.

Board member Winnie Wilkinson said at the meeting she would like to be trained in how to

speak to someone without gender identity.

“That seems to be a huge problem,” she said.

Member John Nicholls said he would be happy to participate in additional training.

Equip SAPD with mental health tools

Nicholls said he would like the board to discuss ways it can help SAPD meet the community’s mental health and substance abuse needs.

Weber is embedded within SAPD during the day Monday to Friday. The clinician assists with 911 calls, connecting callers who are struggling with a crisis to the correct and most appropriate resources.

There is no clinician embedded during night time hours, and Nicholls said Chief Lamothe has told the board in the past this poses a challenge to the department.

“We ask a lot [of police],” Nicholls said. “The police department fills a lot of roles, and I think there are some that they are well-suited for, and some less well-suited for.”

The Police Advisory Board should help suss out which of those roles police can fill and which should be turned over to other professionals, he continued. He proposed the board work to find funding for more embedded clinicians.

“This has been on my mind as well, not just mental health workers, but substance-use folks,” member Kris Lukens said. “I would really like to see that we look to those kinds of resources more holistically for our community.”

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