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Burlington Police work to revamp their response to mental health calls

Published: Apr. 11, 2022 at 5:38 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Does de-escalation training work? The Burlington Police Department is working to revamp the way officers respond to mental health calls.

Between introducing community service officers to the department and instituting new training, Acting Police Chief Jon Murad says the department is committed to a 21st-century policing model, but critics say there is more work to do.

“Using force is an unavoidable part of policing but we want to avoid it whenever we can,” Murad said.

In recent weeks, the Burlington Police Department has relied on de-escalation training for several calls, like one in late March where officers were called to an unresponsive man in his vehicle. Officers say he was drunk and when they tried to wake him, he pulled a putty knife. Murad says they talked him down he dropped the knife and cooperated.

Then at Village Green, a man suffered a mental health episode inside a home. It lasted for hours and the police waited him out. Eventually, it ended.

This past weekend, police were called to a noise complaint on North Winooski Avenue. Police say Thomas O’Halloran, 45, hit a cop and retreated back into his apartment. This time, negotiation failed and officers broke down the door and arrested him.

“Any good cop knows that you want to do a talk-down long before you do a takedown,” Murad said.

But the Mental Health Crisis Response Commission says that’s not what happened in 2016 at Phil Grenon’s apartment. The man in psychosis allegedly threatening to stab people. Officers broke into his home and shot him to death.

About a year before that, BPD started de-escalation training to help them diffuse several different situations, which Murad says is benefiting them now.

According to the Burlington Police Department:

From 2016 to 2021, they responded to more than 11,000 mental health-related incidents.

During that time, call volume stayed steady but the use of force declined.

For example, in 2016, there were 2,005 incidents and 3% resulted in use of force.

Last year, just there were less than 2,000 but the use of force dropped to 1.7%.

The Burlington Police Department is also adding social workers to the force in community service officer positions.

“If we’re subjecting nonpolice to the same police training or if we’re just adding nonpolice to the scene and not removing law enforcement officers, then we aren’t really making the kind of change that the community needs,” said Xusana Davis, the executive director of the Vt. Office of Racial Equity.

Davis says there is still a lot more work to be done.

“We have a lot of tools in our toolbox, and not every one of them does the same thing. And that doesn’t mean that some tools are more valuable than others, it means that you’ve got to address a problem in a way that’s meaningful and not just standard or protocol or rubber-stamping,” she said.

Within the next week, the Burlington Police Commission is expected to discuss the findings of the comprehensive assessment of the department, or the CNA report, by detailing the more than 150 recommendations within it.

City leaders are expected to weigh in on those recommendations and determine which ones they want to adopt.

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