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Many use-of-force incidents in CT involve people in distress. Are police the right response?

Waterbury Police Department Crisis Intervention Team Youth social worker Xylia Lopez connectes with a family from a case report in her office at the Waterbury Police Department. Lopez works in partnership with police on mental health calls in Waterbury, Connecticut July 26, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Social worker Xylia Lopez of the Waterbury Police Department Crisis Intervention Team connects with a family from a case report in her office at the police department on July 26, 2022. Lopez works in partnership with police on mental health calls in Waterbury, Conn.

About 40% of all use-of-force incidents reported by Connecticut law enforcement agencies in the past two years involved someone officers determined to be either “emotionally disturbed” or suicidal. Some communities are experimenting with new approaches to bring those numbers down.

Inside a tiny office on the first floor of the Waterbury Police Department, social worker Xylia Lopez provides officers a different kind of backup.

She doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a gun. She starts her shift working the phones.

Lopez scans a log of police incidents and spots a familiar name. A few days earlier, a woman called 911 because her daughter was threatening to harm herself. Lopez knows the family through her job as a social worker in the Waterbury Public Schools. She dials the mother on her cellphone and asks how things are going.

“I still have your email,” she says. “I can forward you a list of counseling resources that you could have. And then that way, you know, if you need any help, you can give me a call on this number. And I can do a referral, or can help you out with that.”

Lopez helps police with some of their trickiest calls: kids in emotional distress. She follows up by phone and also responds in the field. She helps to de-escalate youth in crisis and provides what experts call a “warm handoff” – a connection to mental health treatment and other resources.

“Here's a normal person coming in regular clothes, coming to talk to me, see how I'm doing. And that kind of helps, really, the situation to defuse a lot of the times,” Lopez said.

The city launched the initiative in November. It’s based on a similar crisis intervention model the department has long operated for adults.

Lopez, 37, brings a wealth of training and experience to the police department, including a bachelor’s degree in criminology and master’s degree in social work. She was previously a domestic violence counselor and worked at an intensive in-home program for children in crisis in Waterbury.

She shares duties at the PD with colleague Deisha Barriera, a 31-year-old Waterbury native and fellow school social worker. During the school year, they typically work mornings and afternoons at school, then an additional 20 hours per week at the police station, coordinating their shifts so that one is available during the busiest times of the week.

Waterbury Police Department Crisis Intervention Team Youth, Lieutenant Kim Binette heading down to their office with her team, social workers with the Board of Education, Deisha Barriera and Xylia Lopez that work in partnership with police on mental health calls in Waterbury, Connecticut July 26, 2022.
Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
Waterbury police Lt. Kim Binette walks beside social workers Deisha Barriera and Xylia Lopez on July 26, 2022. Barriera and Lopez work in partnership with police on mental health calls involving Waterbury youth.

Lt. Kim Binette, who oversees the juvenile division, said the youth crisis intervention program is already paying dividends.

“We're finding families that are being connected with the right services are needing to call the police less,” she said.

'What is the right response?'

That’s an important shift, because those kinds of calls – for people in the midst of a mental health crisis – trigger a significant number of events that end with police using physical force, such as tackling people, using pepper spray or even pointing a gun.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut recently studied more than 1,200 use-of-force incidents reported by police departments around the state over the past two years. They found close to 40% involved someone police deemed to be either “emotionally disturbed” or suicidal.

It’s not entirely clear whether each of those reports involves someone in psychiatric distress. The data were collected pursuant to a 2019 law that requires police to report all uses of force, but reporting practices were inconsistent between departments.

Many also missed the deadline. The report includes data from only 55 municipal police departments, four special police departments and the Connecticut State Police.

Nevertheless, the numbers raise important public policy questions, said Ken Barone, associate director of UConn’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy, which issued the report.

“The question becomes for policymakers, what is the right response?” Barone said. “Is our law enforcement the right response for people in mental health crisis? In some cases they very well might be, but I think this is something, to me, that stood out in the report, as the state really needs to better understand this moving forward.”

More clinicians on the streets

Communities around Connecticut are wrestling with that question. One response has been providing better training. Over the years, around 5,000 officers in Connecticut have participated in a specialized crisis intervention program, where they learn more about mental health conditions and how to calm people down during tense confrontations.

New Haven police Lt. Michael Fumiatti helps lead the program in partnership with the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement.

“We found that one, it changes their attitudes towards mental illness, and … it also changes their ability to be empathetic with people,” Fumiatti said.

Some cities are relying more on clinicians in the field. Through the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Connecticut has partnerships with more than a dozen crisis intervention teams – therapists and social workers who are available to help with behavioral health or addiction issues.

More recently, places like Waterbury have embedded those clinicians right into the police department.

In Manchester, police are working with specialists from CHR, a nonprofit behavioral health care provider. Jennifer Doutre, CHR service director of adult clinical services, said they’re seeing positive results, including what they believe is a reduction in use-of-force incidents.

An important part of their strategy is engaging people into treatment programs, Doutre said.

“Really the purpose is to get people engaged into services and getting the resources they need rather than funneling them through the legal system,” she said.

Community responders

Around the country, cities are also piloting new programs to help people experiencing behavioral health challenges without sending police.

In Hartford, an initiative launched this spring allows licensed clinicians and peer responders to respond to nonviolent calls for people in emotional distress. They offer de-escalation, support services and follow-up case management.

The program expands an earlier partnership in place since 2003 that allowed Hartford police to collaborate with a mobile crisis team to help those experiencing severe and persistent mental illness, sometimes paired with substance use.

San Francisco is testing a similar approach. Street Crisis Response teams there now handle most behavioral health calls. Stats from July show they resolved close to 60% at the scene, allowing the people they helped to remain in the community.

Dr. Matthew E. Hirschtritt is a physician at Kaiser Permanente and faculty member at the University of California who has studied this issue.

“This is kind of the next generation …” Hirschtritt said. “Moving beyond focusing on the police, who already have more than enough that they need to manage, and moving towards a specialty behavioral health team.”

Cheshire Police Chief Neil Dryfe said it’s hard to imagine removing police entirely from these scenarios because some present the threat of violence. But Dryfe, who also serves as president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, agrees police are called upon too often.

“We become the default service provider for people because there isn't anybody else available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to address or respond,” he said.

Jim Haddadin is an editor for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer at NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Walter Smith Randolph is Connecticut Public’s Investigative Editor. In 2021, Walter launched The Accountability Project, CT Public’s investigative reporting initiative. Since then, the team’s reporting has led to policy changes across the state. Additionally, The Accountability Project’s work has been honored with a National Edward R. Murrow award from RTDNA, two regional Murrow awards, a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists, three regional EMMY nominations and a dozen CT SPJ awards.
Carmen Molina Acosta is the 2022 Dow Jones News Intern for the Accountability Project. She graduated from the University of Maryland in May 2022.