Like everything else, policing changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The types of calls and issues local law enforcement is dealing with have shifted, with Needham seeing far more mental health-related calls than before — to the extent that Needham police are changing their staffing and how they do business.  

“That was something that we were focused on pre-pandemic,” Needham Police Chief John Schlittler said. “But I think the jump during the pandemic was significant, and obviously, we’re still dealing with it today. Now we’re seeing the increase all across the board, from our elders to our kids. It has increased so much that we’re changing our staff around.”

The department has had 30 officers — about two-thirds of the sworn staff — complete Crisis Intervention Team training to deal with mental health emergencies. In July, it is adding a full-time clinician to its ranks in order to have someone ready to deal with mental health situations more often. Previously, it had split a clinician with Dedham. 

The clinician, who is a licensed social worker contracted from Riverside Community Care, will be more available to “get there, and de-escalate the situation,” Schlittler said. “Where in the past, if we had someone with a mental health issue, we just put them in the car, drove to Newton-Wellesley Hospital and dropped them off. They literally were out before we were done writing our reports.”

Now Schlittler believes police will be better prepared to address the root causes with the right personnel while freeing up other entities who would previously have needed to be involved.

“[The clinician] can actually do an on-site evaluation, so we don’t have to take them to the hospital. So now we’re freeing up the Fire Department, and we’re freeing up the hospital,” Schlittler said. 

Needham police averaged 182 mental health-related calls from 2020-22, representing a significant increase in the percentage of total calls compared to previous years.  

Mental health-related policing requires a different approach than more traditional police work; rather than responding to incidents, the department tries to treat mental health issues with prevention and early intervention. Just prior to COVID’s onset, Needham PD reassigned an officer from the patrol division to serve as a community outreach officer, tasked with checking in on persons who might benefit from more regular care before bigger problems arise. 

“Following up on substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues, elder abuse or neglect, or just keeping an eye on people that can’t keep themselves safe anymore,” Schlittler said.

The clinician adds another layer on top of that. They have access to patient records and histories and can focus on some of the repeat cases who come into contact with police more frequently. Once a relationship is formed, police have found that many of those persons actually contact the community outreach officer or the clinician themselves when they feel like a situation is getting out of control.  

“So we’re getting it before it gets to the 911 call, where this person is in crisis,” Schlittler said. 

Needham plans to continue training its officers to deal with mental health issues, hoping to eventually get the entire officer complement through CIT training. The hope is to head off issues before they arise, and if they do reach the emergency stage, have a department of officers who understand how to de-escalate and help the person in question get the help they need. 

“We get a call for a party that’s causing a disturbance, and it’s not only a substance abuse issue but there’s a mental health component too, and that’s why the training is so important, so our officers can see that and address it correctly — de-escalate the situation,” Schlittler said. 

Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.

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