The Westerly Sun

WESTERLY — The Westerly Police Department and three other law enforcement agencies in South County recently began working directly with a clinician to help them deal with emergency responses and other cases involving mental health.

The “community diversion clinician” is Alison Turner and she is working with the police in partnership with the Providence Center, which offers mental health and substance treatment services. The Richmond, South Kingstown and Narragansett departments are also part of the program, which formally began this year. 

Howard Mills, the Westerly police community officer, said the police at times have felt overwhelmed by the growing number of mental health cases and the lack of resources to give residents the help they need. Mills himself received crisis intervention team training in September.

“There were cases where we wanted to do more, but just couldn’t,” Mills explained. “There were instances where the only thing we could do was drop them off at [Westerly Hospital] and leave them to wait, some for hours, until a mental health clinician was available. Now, we are developing a better system and have options to follow up that we never had before.”

Turner’s duties vary according to need. On Thursdays, when she is in Westerly, she can take part in direct police responses, riding alongside officers and providing mental health assessments once the scene is secured. She is available by phone to walk officers through difficult or unusual responses, and she is able to follow up on police calls that had a mental health component. She also coordinates with the subjects of police calls to give them options once the emergency has been addressed.

“For the purpose of this program, getting people connected with the appropriate care is always step one,” Turner said. “The ultimate goal heading into the future is to break down barriers and address the underlying mental health issues in the community. In time, such efforts should lead to a reduction in the number of times situations escalate and a reduction in the number of times that police need to be called.”

The Providence Center is an affiliate of the Care New England Health System. Owen Heleen, the center’s vice president of strategy and grants, said other clinicians work with law enforcement agencies in the Providence and Warwick area.

Mills and Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said that the number of calls related to mental health are on the rise nationwide, including in Westerly, and that the new partnership has had some immediate successes.

Mills said that Turner responded to three mental health evaluations during one of her visits to Westerly: All three were dealt with on the same day and at the places where the emergency calls originated.

“If we needed to take them to Providence, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” Mills said. “She was able to come in and really enhance response, and provide more beneficial services in each one of those cases. You can’t put a value on that.” And, as Lacey pointed out, her status as a civilian can aid in some situations in which the people involved may not trust the police.

Lacey added that with Turner’s training, the department will also have access to in-house crisis intervention team certification and other training initiatives for officers.

Heleen said the current South County program costs about $84,000 per year for one clinician serving  four towns. The initial funding was provided through the federal Victims of Crime Act program in Rhode Island, and the Westerly Hospital Foundation has also committed to added funding.

Heleen said he has been working with Lacey to identify more long-term solutions for funding. They are hoping to secure a $100,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Justice that would fund the program and also help supply additional CIT training to officers at all four departments.

“These opportunities serve as another tool in the box for our organization,” Lacey said. “This concept is picking up steam nationwide and we are hoping to remain at the forefront and to use these resources to better serve the community. That’s why we are here.”

Mills and Turner both said they would also like to explore a way to attract mental health centers closer to the southwestern corner of Rhode Island. In the meantime, Mills said the early partnership has already produced positive results.

“Just the awareness this program has already brought, the way officers watch and learn when Ali is on scene, it is helping to change the stigma,” he said. “As officers, we want the public to know they can call us when they need help, and that if they need a trip to the hospital, it will be a start to truly getting them the help they need.”

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