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Police chief takes pride in town’s jail diversion program

by | Oct 5, 2020 | Featured, Police & Fire, Z-Lead Image Front Page

This summer’s national protests that demanded changes in policing included a call for more people trained to handle mental health issues, individuals who would be better prepared than police to deal with those suffering from psychological or substance-abuse issues.

Hopkinton appears to be well ahead of the curve on this issue.

For five years the Hopkinton Police Department has taken part in a jail diversion program, partnering with the Framingham-based nonprofit Advocates. Hopkinton is part of a regional program called ASHH that includes Ashland, Sherborn and Holliston. The communities share a co-responder, a social worker who rides with police to calls in an effort to direct those in need to get the necessary help.

“I’m so excited to reassure the community that we’re on top of this and we’ve been doing this for a long time,” Hopkinton Police Chief Joseph Bennett said during a recent appearance on HCAM’s Hopkinton Hangout Hour. “I’m really passionate about this program. It really does deliver the next level of care to the community, especially to those in crisis and those in need.”

What’s more, Bennett said the program costs the town “almost nothing,” as the majority of it is covered by Bureau of Justice assistance grants through the Department of Mental Health.

Ashley Scionti is the clinician who handles calls in the ASHH communities.

“What [the program] does here is it puts Ashley in our cruisers going to calls,” Bennett explained. “She is one of your first responders. If people call in crisis or with a psychological or maybe a substance-abuse problem or something where you might need someone who has a little more training and need to speak more about from a care level, Ashley, she’s in the training room, she jumps in the car and goes to the call.”

With the clinician addressing the issue, individuals can be kept out of jail and directed to the care that will be more beneficial to them.

“We go to a family in crisis because they don’t know who to call,” Bennett said. “They call the police. The police bring a resource, and that family member or loved one stays in the community. Their care has begun. They’ve been given immediate on-site care. They might have gotten an evaluation. They have referrals. They’ve been given the resources and what they need to move forward.

“Some of these people are just in a moment in a long-term program, and sometimes it’s a matter of just jump-starting that care. And this is a layman’s explanation of it. But for many people it’s their first time, and they don’t know how to navigate this system, and they don’t know how to get resources, and they don’t know the contacts. In a matter of an hour, all that’s jump-started. Keeping someone in the community is the ultimate success. Dragging someone away and putting them in the cell block is an ultimate failure.”

Scionti not only does psychiatric evaluations on the scene and provides resources, she gives police a better understanding of how they might handle a similar situation. In addition to providing formal training to officers, Scionti said, “Informally, me being along with the officers responding to calls, they learn through observations and my way of working with individuals. So I think that’s a huge and really awesome benefit.”

Added Scionti: “What we know is that after a year of having a clinician embedded within the program within the Police Department, the officers’ attitudes have changed towards individuals with mental illness. There was a shift, a positive shift, where officers felt more confident working with individuals, handling calls involving mental health. Also they self-reported being less authoritative in their attitude, their demeanor. So there’s great value I believe both directly and indirectly working with police departments.”

Bennett supports that assessment.

“For me, the program, I’ve watched this change our culture, our mindset about handling these substance-abuse and mental health calls,” he said. “It’s created a cultural paradigm shift. It’s amazing to me once the officers became comfortable and through exposure to the clinician … it really has changed everything. Before we used to respond to someone who was in crisis, and the tools we had was to inadequately Section 12 them [emergency restraint and hospitalization] or send them to the hospital, which didn’t offer enough information to give the person assessing at the hospital the right information they needed. Or you would arrest them for disorderly [conduct] or disturbing the peace, which serves only to stop the crisis in the moment but really didn’t serve the people, didn’t serve the families, didn’t serve the person in crisis in any real way of value. An hour later, the family would be down picking the person up, and they’re no better off for it, and now this person has a criminal record, they have to go to court.”

There are 15 communities in Massachusetts served by the Advocates program, and Bennett predicts it soon will expand based on the current climate.

“It probably will become the national model,” he said. “Speaking with people from Advocates, plenty of people are reaching out and wanting to expand this program to other states.”

Bennett said the jail diversion program is a worthwhile investment, and he hopes those calling to “defund” the police understand its importance.

“If you want to put money somewhere, let’s get some money in these programs and copy this model,” he said. “Don’t tear this apart, don’t look to defund this program. This model works. … It’s tested, it’s proven.”

According to Bennett, the Advocates program is just one more reason Hopkinton residents should feel confident that their call for assistance will get them results.

“Our biggest fear is that someone might be suffering in silence because they don’t know who to call, and they’re reluctant to call the police,” he said. “Rest assured we’re your one-stop shopping. If you don’t know the answer to a question, call us. Our dispatch communications center is trained to triage a call and get the appropriate response, whether it’s Youth & Family Services, the Building Department, whatever resources in the community.”