Malden Police add first mental health clinician to help officers responding to surge in calls

MALDEN, Mass. — Malden Police are adding a new recruit, but it’s not a sworn member of their uniformed officers. Instead, it is a mental health clinician who will work from the police department on a full-time basis. For years, the department used domestic violence counselors to help with responses to related calls, but for the first time, there is an in-house option when it comes to the flurry of mental health calls for help received by police, according to Lt. Michael Powell.

Boston 25 News interviewed Malden officers in July of 2021 after the department reported a spike in forced psychiatric unit commitments handled by police that year, some of them related to suicidal teenagers, officers said. In the months that followed, the department sought funding to hire a licensed mental health clinician.

A state grant was secured through the Department of Mental Health, Powell said.

“We need more sources when it comes to mental health,” Powell said. “Just that element, I feel like we don’t have an adequate amount of resources to effectively deal with some of the issues that we’re seeing in the community.”

Department records show 225 calls resulting in a mental health transport to a medical facility, there were 207 in 2020, and just 143 in 2019.

One officer who travels to many of the mental health calls each shift is Patrolman Richard Doherty, a 9 year veteran of the force.

“They are some of the most involved calls to go to,” Doherty explained.

He estimates being called to one 3-5 times during his 16 hour shifts.

“Nothing is fluid,” Doherty said. “You have to work for every inch you get.”

Not every officer has specialized training for mental health, known as Certified Intervention or CIT training, though Doherty is among Malden officers who have received CIT training.

Doherty says his training helps him understand what those with mental health illnesses are going through, but even the training has its limits.

“It’s overwhelming,” Doherty said. “You want to help, but…don’t know enough about it.”

After a pilot program in 2021, the hope is that the new clinician provided by Eliot Community Human Service will benefit officers’ responses.

Most of their work will involve follow-up after an incident ends to ensure the person in need of help is connected to counselors, which does not always happen even with those taken to hospitals, Doherty said.

“If they know the right words to say, they get discharged and the problem that we brought them there (for) doesn’t get addressed,” Doherty explained. “So they don’t get the help.”

Boston Police and Boston Medical Center began partnering 10 years ago on a program in what is called the Boston Emergency Services Team (B.E.S.T.).

“The presence of someone not in uniform can automatically help to de-escalate a situation,” said Tasha Ferguson, Senior Emergency Services and Transitional Programs Director at Boston Medical Center.

It began with just one person. Last year, the city diverted funds from the police overtime budget to add staff, which now includes more than ten people, Ferguson said.

The department also changed its rules of engagement for involuntary hospitalization to discontinue use of restraints and forced entry for those who are combative or refuse services, according to a July report by the Boston Globe,

In Cambridge, social workers are assigned to follow-up after police respond to mental health calls.

“Most critically we are able to divert folks who have mental health issues away from the criminal justice system whenever possible,” said James Barrett , Director of Clinical Support with the Cambridge Police Department.

In Malden, there will be just one mental health clinician available for a city of 60,000 residents. Powell said it may not be enough for the call volume now or in the years to come, but it is a start.

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