ST. ALBANS CITY — When St. Albans police officers respond to a call for service, they don’t always know what situation they’ll be running into, but it’s helpful to have a mental health clinician nearby.
For the past eight months, that person has typically been crisis service specialist Samantha Weber.
Weber has been embedded with the St. Albans Police Department since February as the department’s de facto mental health responder. She goes on patrols with officers and responds to regular calls for service alongside mental health calls – a first for the department.
“Cops are doing their jobs and sometimes, there’s another job that helps in these situations,” Weber said.
Northwestern Counseling and Support Services first partnered with law enforcement agencies in 2014 to make mental health clinicians available to both St. Albans PD and the Vermont State Police.
Previously, troopers had few options when a mental health situation escalated, and delivering patients to emergency rooms often tied up cruisers when they were needed on other calls. This initial program set out to change that.
Since then, mental health clinicians have expanded their roles in law enforcement, and their success has prompted Vermont to allocate additional dollars to a similar statewide program. In September, the state agreed to embed a mental health clinician within all 10 VSP barracks.
St. Albans police chief Maurice Lamothe said he’d like to see more.
“We would love to expand this, and we’ve been saying this for years,” he said. “I see at some point there's going to be more. The municipalities in the state, county-wide, they're going to make this get bigger. It's going to happen. It's undeniable how well this program works.”
Hard and soft
While the populations that mental health clinicians and law enforcement serve sometimes overlap, each’s expertise is different.
“[Officers] have a very clear rule book and they have to follow it,” Weber said. “Compared to a crisis worker, we’re looking at the immediate needs for the human that is in front of them. It's really been a nice way to mesh those two different approaches.”
With the NCSS program in place, local officials have found that the collaboration between the two works well.
“Law enforcement has more training in physical safety and security,” NCSS crisis team leader Tony Stevens said. “We’re more focused on the person and their emotional well-being.”
Knowing which response is the correct one, however, can be a balancing act.
For example, Stevens said, securing an individual in the back of an ambulance could increase the physical security of those on scene, but it could also be emotionally trying. Having a clinician to read the situation and understand the reactions of the individual can create a better outcome.
“Frequently, we're on the front line together and assessing it together,” Weber said. “If I’ve built a good rapport with an officer, there's some tag teaming.”
Normal procedure calls for officers to secure the scene before initiating a hand-off to the mental health professional when necessary, but it’s not always a cut-and-dry scenario, Weber said. When responding to a mental health call, she’ll take a stronger approach out of the gate.
Sometimes, it depends on the person they’re talking to and what that person prefers.
“You can tell with individuals that you're working with who they are gravitating toward,” Weber said. “If there’s a criminal investigation happening, then I’ll need to stay out of it, but if it's a request for help, sometimes they just gravitate to one responder or another.”
In general, mental health professionals on scene provide “softer” approaches to a scenario. For example, some individuals could have past traumatic experiences with law enforcement and prefer talking with someone out of uniform. Others are more comfortable with women over men, or vice versa.
Either way, Weber said improving the quality of the service depends on the collaborative approach between law enforcement and mental health officials.
“They don’t really know until they get there and see what is going on. … Ideally, we can do a joint response when there’s a mental health problem going on,” Stevens said. “If you have a mental health person there, it allows more options to respond, to assess and support the individual.”
Providing a bridge
While the interplay between mental health and law enforcement adds options for first responders, there have also been institutional benefits associated with the NCSS program.
Since Weber often acts as a bridge between law enforcement and social services offered throughout the county, she can follow up with people after an emergency call has been made. Sometimes, a friendly check-in can convince callers to find support services, which helps NCSS connect with clients who wouldn’t have stepped into their offices.
These additional follow-ups made by Weber also cut down on the number of repeat emergency calls made by individuals dealing with mental health issues.
“It’s one thing to call [dispatchers] once,” Stevens said. “Some people have called there repeatedly and tied up 911 operators. It’s not safe when someone is lonely, or they’re reporting all sorts of crimes or murders that may not be true. They could be stuck in a paranoid and delusional state and trying to turn themselves in. These are things that law enforcement would fly out to.”
Weber’s expertise also has improved the overall quality of police department response even when she’s not on patrol, Lamothe said.
“Whether Sam is on duty or not, we can use the skills that we've learned from her,” he said. “We try to teach her our safety skills so it's beneficial to everybody.”
Weber said officers will seek out her input on scenarios that they’ve run into to see what they could have done differently, and they’ve been receptive to advice and suggestions while on call.
In regards to mental health calls for service, Weber has been able to provide a more clinical eye to better gauge what may or may not be an emergency. When family members or friends of an individual call 911 worried about self-harm, or when someone calls in a concern about a transient person, she can better root out if it’s a real mental health issue, or if someone is just having a bad day.
“’Crazy’ is sometimes a mental health thing. ‘Crazy’ is sometimes a behavioral thing,” she said. “They may not be able to tell a mental health or behavioral issue. When I can see that firsthand, it’s helpful when we’re supporting that person going forward.”
The end result is fewer emergency room visits overall and a better connection to services for those who need the help.
“This is the best resource I’ve had in the last 23 years in my profession,” Lamothe said. “It’s another way to help de-escalate people who we normally don’t have.”