The Colchester Selectboard heard an update from police Chief Doug Allen and First Call assistant director Brandi Littlefield at its last meeting on the community outreach program that started in January.
The town and police department developed the program last year in response to an increase in mental health calls and suicide attempts, former police Chief Jennifer Morrison told the Sun last spring. The program is funded by all six towns involved: Colchester, Essex, South Burlington, Winooski, Shelburne and Williston.
In its first five months of operation, April 30 to September 30, the community outreach team has made 611 contacts with community members in the six towns. This breaks down to 329 distinct clients served, either face-to-face or over the phone, according to the Howard Center community outreach report.
In Colchester, the team has made 75 contacts with community members, which amounts to about 12 percent of the total contacts. In Essex, the team made 85 contacts.
The team excels at alleviating police officers’ stress by assisting them on certain calls, Littlefield said. When a police officer is dispatched, he or she can bring along an outreach specialist, especially if the call will require helping someone with behavioral or mental health concerns.
Essex PD Sgt. John Dunn said the team has assisted the department on 42 calls involving mental health and substance abuse, the two primary issues affecting the community.
“It’s been working great so far. It saves a lot of man hours for us, and there’s more follow up with people that the patrol wouldn’t necessarily be able to follow up with on a regular basis,” Dunn said. “You spend a lot of time with these people, and it’s things that generally don’t need law enforcement, they just need some services.”
Dunn added the program is well-received in the community and hopes it can grow as the PD continues to gather more data. He said EPD recorded 17 calls where officers could have used an outreach specialist, but they came in after hours. This data will help the Howard Center possibly determine new hours down the line if the community needs it, Dunn said.
Littlefield said that when a community outreach specialist is brought along with a police officer, he or she can stay with the individual and allow the officer to leave for the next call knowing the individual who called is in good hands.
“The community outreach specialists are able to remain with that individual and then get them connected to the right services, the right support, build a rapport with them,” she explained. “They have a relationship so that maybe [the individual is] contacting community outreach instead of contacting 911 the next time that they need support and assistance.”
Littlefield noted the team’s greatest number of referrals, 68 percent of the time, are made for behavioral and mental health services, including counseling, addiction services and other forms of therapy.
She added the team has helped police decrease the number of individuals they send to the emergency room. The report shows the team referred clients to a hospital only 39 times, or about 6 percent, in the first five months.
“Before [the police department] had this option … that percentage was much much higher,” Chief Allen said, estimating officers previously sent clients to the emergency department around 80 percent of the time. “We don’t have the expertise or the resources, so our go-to was the ED.”
Community outreach specialist Jeff Cook said this can divert police from situations where they’re not needed, saving time and energy. When the team started in April, specialists asked police departments for a list of people who frequently call emergency dispatch who might need other services instead.
“Being proactive on our end is making sure that those constant contacts are calling us instead of police in those crisis situations, that don’t necessarily need the emergency room,” Cook said.
This “proactive community support” is the team’s most frequent service: They’ve clocked in 222 instances in just five months.
Unlike police officers, outreach specialists can treat individuals in their home and help them figure out the services they might need, Littlefield said.
“People are being served in the best place possible for them, because they’re in their home where they’re most comfortable,” she said. “As opposed to having to ride in a police car and go to the ED, potentially unnecessarily, many of the needs are met without having to have somebody go into a hospital at all.”
Community outreach specialist Mike Muery said the team works with clients of all ages, especially seniors who have trouble finding support to help with aging and housing issues. He added the team can alter its services based on the client’s age and needs.
Overall, team members said they’ve made progress and are excited to keep working in the communities to continue making a difference, one person at a time.
“The more times we can hand out our cards and say, ‘Hey, this is what we can do, just give us a call,’ I think that you’ll start to see more towns maybe want to get on [board] one day,” Cook said. “The start of this program is catching fire.”