Ashfield is spearheading a grant-funded co-response program in the hills

ASHFIELD — Following in the footsteps of other cities in the region, a group of mountain towns is using a $199,999 grant to fund a mental health clinician who will respond alongside police officers in certain emergency situations.

Although Ashfield is the primary city for the purposes of the grant application, the Shared Mental Health Clinician will also serve Buckland, Shelburne, Goshen, Colrain, Conway, Plainfield, Rowe, Heath, Monroe and Hawley. The grant, available through the Department of Mental Health, was awarded on June 14.

Ashfield Police Chief Beth Bezio hopes the program will begin in about a month and noted that police are still in the planning stages. As has been done in other local towns, the clinician would be provided by Clinical & Support Options (CSO), a non-profit behavioral health agency based in Northampton.

“This is a more comprehensive and appropriate response to meet the needs of the community,” commented Jennifer LaRoche, Vice President of Acute and Daytime Programs at CSO.

According to LaRoche, the types of calls clinicians jointly respond to include domestic conflict/violence, people making suicidal statements, and family crises where a parent may be unable to control a child.

Deerfield, Greenfield and Montague were the first towns in Franklin County to unite and receive the Department of Mental Health grant to support co-response services beginning in May 2021, and police say the results are promising. For example, of the 182 completed assessments the Greenfield Police Department conducted from May 2021 to April 2022, 119 people, or 65%, were diverted from arrest or hospitalization during a mental health crisis, according to the acting police chief of Greenfield. William Gordon. Without this partnership with CSO, Gordon previously said they “would have had no choice” but to bring someone to the hospital.

As co-response efforts continue to bear fruit, other towns in the county and throughout Pioneer Valley have followed suit. In early May, the Erving Police Department partnered with the departments of Gill, Bernardston, Northfield, Wendell, Leverett and Warwick. Additionally, Northampton, Amherst, Hadley and Easthampton have taken steps to implement a co-sponsor program.

“This program is about building community and helping people,” Bezio said, later adding that “it was a thorough application, but it was worth it.”

For the group of mountain towns launching their own program, a full-time, 40-hour-per-week mental health clinician position with benefits will be paid for with the majority of the grant. A police officer rotating from the cities involved will accompany the clinician.

Monroe and Hawley will also be involved in this program, although these towns do not have their own police departments. State police officers who serve these cities will be included in the co-response program. According to LaRoche, this is the first time CSO has worked with state police troopers.

Currently, CSO’s emergency service program receives weekly calls from police, schools, and local residents for emergencies in these cities. With a clinician closer, they will be able to get proper care faster, according to LaRoche.

“We’re trying to re-educate the community on how to get the right services at the right time,” LaRoche said. “He doesn’t always call 911 and not everyone knows that.”

The program has yet to hire a clinician with the appropriate experience. LaRoche said CSO does not expect there to be any hiring difficulties.

The grant will also be used to purchase a different uniform for the police officer who will accompany the CSO clinician. This uniform will include a polo shirt, according to Bezio.

“The new uniform will be less intimidating,” Bezio said.

At a recent small council meeting in Buckland, when the council approved membership in the co-response program, city administrator Heather Butler said, “This addressed some of the concerns of our small council mission. that we have not been able to resolve. It’s a very good first step. »

When asked what this program means for the future of policing, Bezio said, “Police will never stop. This program provides more resources to help us serve our community.

Ryan H. Bowman