Crime and Justice

Has central Vermont found the solution to policing mental health?

Susan Lemere is a mental health liaison for the Montpelier and Barre police departments. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier said when people think of police responding to someone in a mental health crisis, they probably picture an incident on the news.

But in central Vermont, he said, “it’s a daily occurrence.”

“I would bet you a week’s paycheck, not a day goes by that somebody in that group of law enforcement officers responds to somebody with a mental health issue,” he said.

Only a “small percentage” of those calls end in an arrest, said Susan Lemere, mental health liaison for the department. 

Yet what can police officers do when their traditional role doesn’t fit? How can police officers help when they’re not trained to respond to a person in a mental health crisis?

“The public, in general, has asked law enforcement over the last couple handfuls of decades to take on more. And the expectation is that you end up being a jack of all trades, and you’re not an expert in many of them,” Bombardier said.

“I don’t think any of us has a problem responding to a call to help somebody,” said Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete. “The frustration level comes in if I’m not adequately equipped with the resources to get that person help.”

The stakes are high. A 2020 VTDigger analysis of police use of fatal force in Vermont over the past decade found that at least a quarter of them involved a Vermonter having a mental health crisis. 

More than a year later, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to its own pandemic of mental health issues, including substance use. Resources are strained as well. In April, hospitals around the state reported a surge of children in the emergency room for mental health crises.

A new system is emerging in Vermont: The use of mental health clinicians, like Lemere, who work with police to intervene with people in crisis. 

Lemere, employed by Washington County Mental Health Services, splits her time between Barre and Montpelier, and both chiefs agree she’s an improvement to their departments.

Many police departments across the state have partnerships with local mental health agencies, but very few have a social worker or counselor in their department. Even with an embedded clinician, Peete said, local resources are stretched.

“I just wish Washington County Mental Health Services had more funding and resources to do what they do,” he said. “They do a damn good job.”

Hear an interview with Susan Lemere on this week’s Deeper Dig podcast.

The root of the crisis

At Best Buy one day, while shopping, Dan Towle ran into someone who appeared to be going through a mental health crisis.

He watched as a local police officer showed up and tried to engage the person, but the person wasn’t responding. So “then the state police showed up, and they threw him on the ground and dragged him out.”

The person at Best Buy was acting “strange” and “unusually,” Towle said — but “at the beginning of the interaction, there wasn’t violence or threat.”

But as the interaction continued, he said, the behavior escalated until the police used force.

A psychiatric survivor himself, Towle now works as peer support coordinator at the National Association of Mental Illness in Vermont. He’s also a member of the Montpelier Police Review Committee, which is drafting a set of recommendations for the department in the fall.

He said the Montpelier police get “good marks” from his experience, but expressed concern about the “fundamental dynamic” between police and civilians that sets up people with mental health conditions for charged interactions.

“Just looking at what they wear, and what they carry … is intimidating when it comes to the mental health community, particularly those that are the unhoused, interacting with the police in public,” he said.

And many of the interactions do happen in public. Peete said his department may get calls from Montpelier residents when, for example, they notice someone talking to themselves on the Statehouse lawn. 

“All of a sudden, somebody is unnerved by that and they call 911. They want the police to respond to that, [but] that’s not illegal,” he said.

Bombardier said that trend has been going on since the 1970s, when Vermont shut down its state-funded mental health hospitals, and people who had been in treatment were now living in the community.

Police officers receive some training on how to interact with people in mental health crises. In Vermont, the central resource is Team Two training, which is a one-day, eight-hour training session that has been utilized by most departments in the state.

The goal is to give officers a framework for responding to someone in emotional distress through three lenses: safety, clinical presentation and legal responsibility, said Gary Gordon, director of emergency services at Washington County Mental Health Services, who helps coordinate Team Two.

But Towle questioned whether that is adequate for officers, calling it “two baby steps” in the right direction. Some states offer weeklong crisis intervention training, although targeted at fewer officers in each department.

So when a police officer arrives at a scene where someone is acting out, how the officer initially responds often determines how the interaction evolves.

“Unfortunately, many times police end up resorting to the core training they have, which is about use of force,” he said.

He also described the long chain of events that follow that police interaction as a potentially traumatic experience. 

Getting sent to a hospital emergency department, and getting committed voluntarily or involuntarily, can exacerbate a person’s mental state, he said.

He once checked himself into the hospital during a mental health crisis and said “I need help.”

“But I ended up being put in this facility, which is just three bleak rooms, small rooms with a slab for a bed with sally ports and locks, and then a window they would sit behind and observe,” he said. “That was one of the most traumatizing experiences in my life.”

And with a shortage of mental health treatment beds, many people, including children, are spending more time in the emergency department before getting into a treatment program. 

Both medical providers and police officers are allowed to physically restrain someone or drug them, which Towle considers traumatizing and a gamble on how the drugs could interact with someone’s health.

“We in the advocate community are really fighting to see if we can move away from emergency involuntary volunteer procedures and focus on, ‘What can we do when someone’s in crisis? Can we de-escalate using interpersonal skills?’” he said.

A new system

Susan Lemere has some experience with de-escalation. Arriving at a scene where someone is in crisis, she starts off by introducing herself: “Hi, I’m Susan.” Then she observes.

“Does somebody seem to have an urgency for just telling someone what’s happening?” she said. “Sometimes I’m looking at, what does the person’s breathing look like? Are they physically shaking? Are they breathing? Sometimes my first intervention with someone is, ‘Can I get you to take a few deep breaths with me?’”

The goal is to get the person to the point where they’re calm enough to talk to her, to share if there’s a loved one who could help them, if there’s a care provider she can call, if there’s support or resources that person needs — particularly mental health treatment.

It can be difficult when that person has a long-seated mistrust of the medical system, Lemere said. 

“You’ve had 10 bad experiences with 10 different people, and so it’s probably pretty hard for you to hear, ‘Hey, I’m the new person this time, will you talk to me?’ But I am the new person and I really do want to help,” she said.

The partnership between Washington County Mental Health Services and local police departments is not new. Bombardier said he’d been collaborating since at least the early 1980s, and the department’s formal partnership began nearly 10 years ago after Barre was hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene.

Gordon said the emergency services line at Washington County Mental Health Services has operated for years to catch people in crisis who don’t seem to require police intervention. “Usually, if the police are involved, there’s some kind of safety element involved,” he said.

“A woman called up and said, ‘My son has a pickaxe and he’s destroying my living room,’” Gordon said. “We’re not going to walk in the house with somebody swinging the pickaxe, so we have to have the police respond with us.”

Lemere’s direct work with the Barre and Montpelier police departments began only in 2020, after they received a state grant to hire her. 

She arrived not long after Peete, who moved to Montpelier from New Mexico in June 2020, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about defunding the police. 

Brian Peete is chief of the Montpelier Police Department. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Both Peete and Bombardier say that being able to work closely with Lemere improves their response. 

“Susan has firsthand knowledge of what they expect from my officers when they’re on scene. The officers have the same insight to what to expect from Susan,” Bombardier said.

“You can’t look at the police and say, ‘You’ve got to be everything.’ You can’t look at a mental health clinician and say, ‘You’ve got to be everything.’ You can’t look at the community outreach person and do the same thing. It needs to be a team approach,” Bombardier said.

Before coming to Vermont, Lemere worked as a crisis clinician in Massachusetts on a “parallel track to police.” But she prefers this arrangement, which gives her the ability to work alongside officers rather than hearing about things after the fact.

She said she’s noticed even when she has arrived at a scene, sometimes officers will continue using their own interpersonal skills. “The officers that I work with are pretty tremendously skilled in conflict resolution,” she said.

Peete said he continues to send his officers to training. One element he emphasized is being honest with people in their interactions.

“If we lie to somebody to get them into a situation where we can better control it and manage it, then it’s not going to help us because there will be a next time,” he said. 

He said police officers, as part of their profession, need to learn that people’s experience with police are “universal.”

“If I’m dealing with somebody here in Vermont, and I treat that person disrespectfully and without dignity, and they move to Alabama, their experiences are going to be the old ‘cops treat people like crap’ and everything else like that,” he said.

The biggest downside to integrating mental health services into law enforcement, Peete said, is the lack of resources for them to take on the added work. “Gary [Gordon’s] team didn’t all of a sudden get a magic budget increase,” he said.

“Between the five law enforcement agencies” in central Vermont, “I think we could probably use three people like Susan,” Bombardier said, preferably working in shifts to provide more coverage later into the evening.

Towle said initiatives that bring mental health clinicians to people in crisis have produced “good results” so far. But he questioned whether police were even necessary to respond to mental health crises. 

The CAHOOTS model, founded in Eugene, Oregon, relies on a partnership between social workers and emergency medical personnel to intervene in crisis situations. 

He also believes more departments should involve peer counselors — people with lived experience of mental health conditions who can meet others on more equal footing. 

“I don’t believe in abolishing the police — there are things that the law enforcement does here in America that are needed,” he said. “It’s just, we need to reshift who’s doing what, and when.”

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Erin Petenko

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