“Wait here and I’ll radio when the scene is clear,” Boston Police Officer Rico Lucien said, as he exited his patrol car and walked to the front door of a Hyde Park halfway house.
Mathew Salch, a clinician with the Boston Emergency Services Team (BEST), fidgeted with his bulletproof vest and watched Officer Lucien through the rain-streaked window.
Lucien and a pair of backup officers were responding to the 911 call of a woman who said her boyfriend had showed up at her apartment claiming to have beaten his elderly father.
The man had a history of mental illness and had a series of previous run-ins with the police, Officer Lucien told Salch before he got out of the vehicle.
As the officers entered the house, Salch prepared to spring into action. He is one of two BEST clinicians who ride with the Boston police. BEST is run by the Boston Medical Center and provides psychiatric crisis services throughout the city.
Once an officer clears a scene such as this one of threats, Salch or Ben Linksy, the other clinician, enter to talk with the person in mental distress. The goal is to calm the person and ultimately divert them from jail or being taken to a hospital (an average ambulance trip costs the city $6,000) if possible. Several police officials and BEST members said having a clinician respond in situations like this often results in a better outcome for the patients.
After Salch or Linksy perform an initial evaluation, they call a mobile BEST team who can be dispatched any time of the night or day to continue the evaluation, so that they can move on to the next call with the police. The mobile BEST team can help people with counseling needs, getting treatment or finding a place at a local treatment center. Sometimes after Salch or Linksy address a situation there is no need for follow up by the mobile BEST team.
“The Boston Emergency Services Team works hand in glove with the Boston PD,” said Andrea Hall, clinical director of BEST, about the partnership between the organizations.
A typical night for the clinicians varies from responding to people who are suicidal, to domestic disturbances, to simply deescalating scenes that could turn violent. The week before, Salch had responded to an incident at a group home where a teenager heated a glass of water in a microwave and threw it on a worker burning her ear. Later in the week, he walked in on exorcism at the house of a teenage girl whose parents were from the Caribbean and thought the girl was possessed. The teen had recently been diagnosed as bipolar and was in the midst of an episode.
“There’s never a down moment,” said Salch, who graduated from Boston University with a Master’s degree in mental health counseling and behavioral medicine, and has been on the job for eight months.
These incidents only scratch the surface of the calls he and Linksy take which also includes providing psychiatric consults at barricade situations and rendering mental health assistance to those who faced a grievous loss.
Salch recalled responding to the call of a distraught parent who had found her middle-aged son dead in her house.
“That was a difficult one, because the woman’s grief was so overpowering,” he said.
“Apparently, her boyfriend took off after she called us,” Officer Lucien said when he returned to the car. “We’re going to go look for him.”
Back on the streets of Hyde Park, Officer Lucien drives around searching for the runner. He and Salch discuss the BEST program and the criticism it faced from inside the Boston Police Department when it started.
“It wasn’t that what you do isn’t useful,” Officer Lucien explained to Salch. “It’s that at first I had to get used to the idea that I was having to watch out for someone else’s additional safety when responding to a scene.”
Discussing a case from a few weeks earlier, Officer Lucien and Salch said they were called to a house where a 13-year-old boy lost control after his mother told him that he couldn’t join his school’s baseball team. The boy trashed his room and when they arrived they found him in his room with a pile of trophies around him.
What Salch didn’t see was the knife the boy was palming in one hand. Officer Lucien spotted it and convinced the boy to hand him the knife.
“You have to be careful at all times,” Salch said.
Ben Linksy, the other BEST clinician, said that he faced hostility in 2011 when he was brought in to the district that he currently works.
“The officers weren’t accepting,” Linksy said. “They were paranoid and distrustful.”
For the first few months while he was getting to know the officers in the B2 district, performed evaluations in the holding cell. Eventually, the officers began taking him on ride-alongs. Now he teaches a 12-hour mental health-training course for recruits at the Boston Police Academy.
“I think that the officers have seen the value of what we do,” he said.
Sgt. Samil Silta, an officer at station B2, agrees.
“It’s like having a trained social worker on staff,” Sgt. Silva said. “He’s right there with us and once he starts talking to an Emotional Disturbed Person (EDP) it’s no longer a police issue and that frees us up to do other things.”
Sgt. Silva said that it’s useful to have a clinician on the scene because sometimes the public won’t open up to law enforcement.
“They view us as authority and are hesitant to tell us everything that’s going on,” he said.
For five years Jenna Savage has chipped away at that wall between the Boston Police Department and BEST.
The partnership between the organizations started in 2010 when the department received a Justice and Mental Health Grant from the Justice Department. The grant allowed Savage, who is the senior research coordinator with the police department, to jumpstart an initiative to teach officers about the many BEST services that were at their disposal but that the police weren’t utilizing.
The grant created an e-learning curriculum and a 24-hour helpline staffed by BEST clinicians to help officers responding to mental health calls.
Before that, the Boston Police Department had no mental health-related initiatives for its officers, she said.
Savage, who has a PhD in Criminology from Northeastern University, said that and a state mental health grant received in 2011 were turning points for the force. The second grant allowed them to hire Linksy.
The ultimate goal she said is to create a citywide response for the police department in dealing with people with mental illnesses and adding more BEST clinicians.
The fact that the clinician program is based solely on grants and could disappear if they don’t receive additional grant money worries her, because the Boston Police Department doesn’t have other programs to deal with people mental illnesses.
“We’ve broke down some serious barriers, but there is still a lot to do to make sure that this program becomes permanent,” Savage aid. “Otherwise, we could be a neat little experiment that could go away at any time.”
Officer Lucien drops Mathew Salch off at the station at the end of their shift. The runner had successfully eluded the police but other officers were still looking for him.
As he drove back to his house, Salch marveled at how far the BEST program had come in his short time there.
“We’ve gone from not being accepted when we started to officer’s in other Boston police department district’s calling us for help, because they have heard of the work that we are doing. That feels good.”