DA’s Office Partners with Police, Mental Health Providers on Diversion Program

CCB MEDIA PHOTO Barnstable District Court.

Barnstable District Court.

BARNSTABLE- The Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office is partnering with the Cape’s police chiefs and mental health advocates on a new protocol for how law enforcement deals with people with mental health issues.

Chatham Police Chief Mark Pawlina, who is head of the Cape Cod Chiefs of Police, and first alerted First Assistant District Attorney Michael Trudeau to the issue of police responding to numerous calls—perhaps 60 to 70 per year—for people with mental health issues.

“It’s not unusual for police to have multiple service calls for individuals who have mental health issues,” Trudeau said.

Sometimes the way police would usually react to a call—with a raised voice and a take-charge stance—can serve to escalate a situation if the person has mental health issues, Trudeau said.

The thought was, “there’s got to be a better way to deal with it,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau and Pawlina attended a meeting of the Cape Cod Behavioral Health Provider Coalition of Cape Cod and the Islands to talk about the issue.

The groups decided that police and the court system should have a different protocol to deal with people who are acting out of mental illness rather than criminal intent, Trudeau said.

The groups put together a Mental Health Concern Notification form, so that if there is an incident, police can easily reach out to a patient’s case worker or other mental health provider.

The idea, Trudeau said, is to expedite the court process, perhaps even having a pre-arraignment, so that the person with mental health issues can avert incarceration by fulfilling conditions like taking medication or continuing counseling as conditions for release.

Pawlina said police know first hand that people who have mental health issues need special treatment.

“Law enforcement agencies recognize the importance of persons afflicted with mental health issues to get the proper care and treatment they need. Even in situations where an arrest is necessary, the need for treatment does not go away,” Pawlina said in a prepared statement. “We understand the need for treatment of arrestees with mental health issues as a potential alternative to criminal prosecution and incarceration when appropriate. The notification system between police agencies and the District Attorney’s office is a positive step forward in developing longer term solutions for those afflicted with mental illness.”

The new Mental Health Concern Notification System that the groups came up with will enable law enforcement personnel to take certain information contained in the regular police report and put it on the special form. The form will notify the district attorney’s office for an expedited review of the case and the possibility of an alternative processing.

“It’s similar to a juvenile diversion,” Trudeau said. “It’s to make street encounters and our court process more helpful for individuals. If we are able to keep that individual on track and the mental health issues are being addressed, the calls for service will decrease dramatically.”

Ron Holmes, Steering Committee Co-Chair of the Behavioral Health Provider Coalition of Cape Cod and the Islands, said it is increasingly recognized that individuals with mental health issues should be considered for treatment instead of incarceration. Some jurisdictions in the commonwealth even have a Mental Health Court and Holmes said he hoped the Cape could have that program in the future.

But, he said, in the absence of a special court, the new notification system “is the next best thing and represents a huge step for our community toward establishing better practices for considerate treatment of individuals living with mental illness.”

With the new system in place, if an individual with mental health issues ends up in court, the form would be part of the arraignment process that alerts the court to the issues and notifies care providers, “to get in front of the situation in hopes of dealing with it in a more positive way,” Trudeau said.

The coalition’s role in the process, Trudeau said, “is they’re able to respond and defuse the situation and assist the person.”

Trudeau said it is important to note that the information contained on the notification form would normally be included in a police report. Law enforcement personnel will not be making a determination of any kind regarding the person’s mental health. They would simply be calling attention to a concern, he stated.

“By working together to provide police and prosecutors with basic information about individuals with mental health issues, street encounters and court appearances with these individuals will be more positive,” Trudeau said.

Police and court personnel will be able to contact case workers and service providers that can get involved early and address any concerns before they escalate, Trudeau said.

“While the notification form might appear simple and straight forward, it speaks volumes of the ongoing and continued collaboration between mental health providers, law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau said the towns of Barnstable and Yarmouth already have begun a program where, in some instances, they accompany case workers to the homes of people with mental health issues to introduce themselves to the patient in a positive way—instead of meeting them for the first time during a time of crisis.

There are also training programs underway for first responders who may encounter people with mental illnesses in the course of responding to an emergency.

“If you are able to interact based on the training, you can defuse it without making an arrest,” Trudeau said.


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