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Embedded mental health worker plays key role for St. Albans Police

Published: Jul. 21, 2021 at 8:09 AM EDT
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ST. ALBANS, Vt. (WCAX) - Police departments across the country are changing the way they operate, including adding mental health experts to the team.

The concept of a clinician embedded in the St. Albans Police Department dates back to 2011 and was rolled out in 2014. A founding member says now there’s even more need.

According to Northwestern Counseling & Support Services data from 2017, 60% of problems police were running into or being called for were mental health-related. While officers we spoke with say they feel trained, they said it adds a layer of confidence having a mental health professional there, too.

The program NCSS has with city police can take a serious load off officers.

“Really moving in that direction of more advanced mental health trainings and things like that,” said St. Albans Police Sgt. Joseph Thomas, who’s been with the department for 20 years.

Thomas has watched policing in the city evolve over time with more training and increased responsibility. But he says one of the most valuable resources for mental health emergencies are embedded clinicians.

“We do have training in it, but it’s not our dedicated career path,” Thomas said.

A common phrase at St. Albans PD is to “Send Sam.” That would be Sam Weber, the NCSS clinician embedded with the department.

“I show up at the police department and see what the day holds for us,” Weber said.

Their goal is to get her on as many calls as possible. The police department’s philosophy is if someone is calling 911, she can help.

“Be their counterpart and sort of help find more complex solutions for more complex situations,” Weber said.

She says how people feel about police can be complicated, so she can be a listening ear. She estimates roughly 65% of her contacts result in follow-up or community resource recommendations.

But St. Albans Police Chief Maurice Lamothe says he’s not using the numbers to measure success.

“It’s not about numbers for me, it’s never been for this program. It’s about the success with the people. So, we are not here to reduce arrests, we are not here to reduce anything, we are about getting services to the people,” Lamothe said.

Lamothe was commander of the Vermont State Police St. Albans barracks when another clinician was embedded there. He says he still sees this as one of the best programs he has been a part of for law enforcement.

“Set up a plan, get a plan in place, and then that repeat caller may not be a repeat caller anymore,” said Lamothe.

Weber measures success by fewer calls, a good outcome and people asking for mental health services.

“One of the ways we are starting to find a lot of success is the fact that in the community members that I have interacted with are starting to pass my contact information along to neighbors and friends and saying this is someone you can contact and this is someone you can trust,” said Weber.

Tony Stevens, a leader of the NCSS crisis team, says no matter why someone calls 911, there is more often than not a place for mental health support services.

“Safety is always the number one priority for law enforcement, and they do a wonderful job keeping our clinicians safe, as well as everyone in the community. But I picture it like a delicate dance. There is a lot of communication on the way to those calls or even right there on scene, and I think that’s one of the benefits to being embedded -- you have and build that trust and that relationship and it works pretty seamlessly,” said Stevens.

Two years after this program rolled out, it was then brought to the Vt. State Police St. Albans barracks. A major piece of the equation is even after state police deem everyone safe and they leave, Weber is then able to connect someone struggling with a crisis to the correct and most appropriate resources. She says that can be her phone number, more information or even taking someone directly to a service like a hospital.

As for what the future of this program holds, they are looking into second shifts and weekends as well as more therapeutic options like dogs, but for that, they need sustained and increased funding.

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