Boston city councilors have started looking at expanding a program that uses mental-health workers to try to de-escalate confrontations between "emotionally disturbed" people and the police.
A proposal by Councilor Ayanna Pressley (at large) to add more workers to the existing Boston Emergency Services Team (BEST) won the backing of Police Commissioner William Evans and West Roxbury Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Coffey, who runs a special court session for people with mental illnesses facing criminal charges.
Evans and Coffey said too many people with mental illnesses wind up in emergency rooms, lockups, the courts and jails rather than treatment programs, which is not only bad for the individuals but costs scarce public funds and in the end may only lead to repeat cycles through the system.
"Locking up an emotionally disturbed individual is not a cure," Evans told a hearing called by Pressley and Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George (at large) today. He added that the BPD academy in Hyde Park now gives new recruits classes in trying to help such people, rather than simply locking them up.
Pressley suggested that at least one BEST worker be assigned to each of BPD's 12 districts - where they would roll out with officers responding to calls involving a potentially "emotionally disturbed" person.
Coffey said people specially trained in dealing with people with mental illness could help deescalate often volatile situations - keeping them out of jail and protecting the officers themselves from possible attacks. And where the people do need additional help, the workers would be able to get them directly into treatment programs, rather than forcing them into emergency-room beds, she said.
Coffey said that roughly 80% of the clients at the Pine Street Inn - and 40% of the inmates in Suffolk County's jails - have mental-health or addiction issues.
The criminal-justice system, especially with its rigid schedules and requirements, is just not the best place for people with mental-health issues, and they often find themselves in more and more trouble as they miss appointments or court hearings, Coffey said.
She said one person who recently came before the mental-health session she oversees - in which people facing charges are paired not just with the probation department but with mental-health clinicians - told her that "having a mental illness is like being trapped on a runaway train going in the wrong direction. hopelessness, there's a sense of despair, a sense of doom, a belief that life is not going to get better."
Getting people like that into treatment is "an excellent way to break the cycle," she said.