Fitchburg Police Recognized for Training to Help the Mentally Ill

FITCHBURG -- City police are among four departments statewide recognized by the International Association of Chiefs of Police for partnering with medical professionals and training officers to help residents with mental illness instead of arresting them during a crisis.

“I thinks we’re breaking barriers in this city to show a certain level of compassion and showing that type of compassion really goes a long way towards building trust,” said Police Chief Ernest Martineau of the recognition.

The recognition comes after Martineau’s department completed all four requirements laid out by the One Mind Campaign. Launched by the international chiefs association, the campaign aims to ensure police have “successful interactions” with residents affected by mental illness, said Martineau.

Participants of the One Mind Campaign pledge to send each member of its department to mental-health awareness training. Departments also pledge to send at least 20 percent of sworn officers to more intensive Crisis Intervention Training, a 40-hour course where officers learn to de-escalate in mental health crisis situations.

“This is a major undertaking for any department,” said Martineau.

Locally, police departments in Ashburnham, Ayer and Westminster are among the 398 departments in the world that joined the One Mind Campaign.

Over 100 of those departments are in Massachusetts, where police in just four communities -- Fitchburg, Arlington, Northampton and Brookline -- have so far satisfied the requirements of the pledge they took to improve relations with people experiencing mental illness.

Fitchburg police have surpassed the campaign’s intensive training requirement, said Martineau.

Thirty-six of the department’s 78 sworn officers -- or about 30 percent -- completed Crisis Intervention Training, added Capt. Harry Hess, with the entire department completing at least eight hours of mental-health awareness training.

Another aspect of the pledge was satisfied by a partnership the department forged five years ago with Community Health Link in Leominster, said Hess.

Community Health Clink clinicians accompany plain clothes officers trained in crisis intervention for follow-up visits with mentally ill individuals who crossed paths with law enforcement, he said.

The partnership increases communication between law enforcement and medical practitioners, helping connect people struggling with mental health issues to resources before an incident happens.

“We’re being proactive rather than reactive,” said Martineau.

Mental health plays a roll in the “vast majority” in the calls for emergency assistance to local police, he said.

While Martineau said the number of arrests made annually has declined for several years, he hesitated to draw a direct link between the declining arrest date and the department’s prioritization of “compassionate” policing.

He did, however, speculate a relationship exists between the two.

“Not that I can point my finger to it, but I would say that’s because of the way we’re trained,” he said. “We’re looking for alternatives to just arresting someone, because there may be an underlying condition.”