With roughly 70 percent of 911 calls to the Falmouth Police Department involving a mental health or drug and alcohol addiction crisis, Falmouth’s police chief is calling for a fresh approach to tackling social problems that does not include defunding his department.
Police Chief Edward A. Dunne plans to hire more officers and contract with a mental health professional in an attempt to reduce the incidences of suicide attempts, erratic behaviors, intoxication, and heroin and other drug overdoses.
“Our focus has changed dramatically over the years,” Chief Dunne said. “It used to be about chasing the bad guys and now it’s about administering Narcan and talking people down from a mental crisis.”
Chief Dunne’s plans come in the midst of calls to defund police departments and invest in social workers.
“Clinicians can’t go to calls alone,” Chief Dunne said. “Officers are often responding to situations where people are violent or out of control and need police officers trained in deescalation. We’re not trying to be mental health professionals and I believe a partnership between police and mental help professionals is the best approach.”
Chief Dunne has put in place partnerships between the department and Gosnold Treatment Center and Falmouth Human Services, where counselors and a plainclothes police officer follow up with people after they have have interactions with the police. While both programs are effective, he said, he wants them to grow.
“Mental health, addiction and homelessness are often intertwined. If we had a more-robust team in place, we can reach out to these people before they hit crisis level, like overdosing, or becoming homeless. We need a proactive approach to really try to solve the problem,” Chief Dunne said.
The new program would be called the Community Action Team. Chief Dunne’s hope is that it be up and running within a year. At the moment he has 50 active police officers, with seven more on staff that are out on disability or for other reasons. Seven more officers are currently training in the field. When he has a full staff, more officers will be trained in crisis intervention and will accompany a contracted counselor. The team will check in on people the police have encountered on 911 calls.
“We do this now with the Falmouth Human Services Department, but we could check in more frequently to see how they are doing and how we can help, not just after a crisis,” he said.
Falmouth police and counselors from Gosnold on Cape Cod have since 2015 conducted follow-up visits to homes of drug users who almost died and their family members, offering treatment. Police have also made mental health visits with Mark Abbott from Falmouth Human Services to homes that have been the subject of multiple police calls.
“The program is working and some people do follow up with us about using our services, or we help them get the services they need, whether it’s housing, counseling or treatment,” said Suzie Hauptmann, director of Falmouth Human Services.
“The new program would be growing on and enhancing what we are already doing and will offer more opportunity for outreach on a more-regular basis,” she said.
The Falmouth Police Department is certified by the International Association of Chiefs of Police to respond to people affected by mental illness. To certify, a police agency must pledge that all of its officers will be trained in mental health and first aid and at least 20 percent will be trained in crisis intervention. All staff in the Falmouth Police Department receive eight hours of training to deescalate in a respectful way people who are acting out due to a mental illness. The department must also establish a partnership with a community mental health organization and develop a policy on how staff will respond to people in crisis.