Victoria Denneno (L) Community Resource Officer and Emily Turnbull, Riverside clinician/ Credit: Needham Observer

With the arrival of COVID in 2020, the occurrence of mental health crises increased — as did a focus on better understanding how to respond to them across all town departments. Needham police were ahead of the curve, having implemented crisis-intervention training nearly a decade ago and hiring full-time clinician Emily Turnbull in July 2023. 

Turnbull, who works for the Needham PD but is employed by Riverside Community Care, split her time between Needham and Dedham for two years before joining the force. With a background in both outpatient therapy and suicide prevention, she said this role meshes both types of response. “It combines the immediate crisis as well as follow-up support, which is where the more therapeutic side comes in,” she said. 

With Turnbull’s help, police can get residents the support they need without the stigma, and avoid old-school incarceration practices that leave little room for nuance. “I think it’s really helping bridge the gap between the police department and all the services around town,” she said. “A lot of their calls are a lot more community-based than arresting. Having me here allows them to tap into mental health services more quickly.” With her clinical background, Turnbull said she can assess the situation and reach out to other services such as the Center at the Heights and Youth and Family Services, saving the police department time and resources. 

Deputy Chief Chris Baker said he recognized a need for streamlining the town’s crisis-intervention response around 2015, when many departments were working in silos and forming their own teams to address mental health and substance use issues. “We were sending people through crisis intervention,” he said. “But with their regular patrol it was limiting their ability to follow up.” At that point, he said the department began looking at a community resource officer position to meet that need and eventually also decided to hire a part-time clinician.

“There was a big outcry from the town to hire somebody full time,” he said. “Not just the Select Board or the town manager, but residents.” He said the numbers also supported the need for a full-time clinician. In addition, Baker said they have sent more than 75% of the force through dedicated crisis-intervention training. 

“It’s come a long way since I started. I started in ‘97, and we would take somebody in a mental health crisis, bring them to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and 45 minutes later they would be walking around Needham square again,” he said. “There was no followup. This is just a much better model.” 

A primary goal of this work is keeping residents out of jails and hospitals as much as possible, allowing them to stay at home to receive the help they need in the moment as well as follow-ups after the fact, something Turnbull said she sees consistently with the aging population in town. 

Victoria Denneno, who was hired as a community resource officer in November, partners with Turnbull on outreach and support for residents. She said at prior departments where she’s worked without a clinician, the job was much more challenging.

“Working on mental health without a clinician is tough,” she said. “We are CIT- (crisis-intervention) trained and get training in Police Academy — we do the best we can. But someone like Emily, it’s incomparable. She’s a huge benefit to the department, and I think all departments should have one.” 

She said the consistency she and Turnbull are able to provide for residents struggling with mental health issues and substance use is especially important. “I would like to think that with us being out there, people know they have someone they can reach out to on an ongoing basis. We check in on people every couple of weeks.” 

Turnbull said the job is truly a joint effort. “I think Needham is really good about providing mental health awareness for the officers,” she said. “But they also are able to utilize me and get services they may not be aware of themselves.”

These services, she said, are one of the benefits of working with Riverside where she has access to their database of resources, a support network and a manager to bounce ideas off. She said their ultimate goal is to keep people at home and help them in their own space as much as possible. “With me and Riverside, it allows people to stay within the community and manage things within the community when appropriate.” 

Justin Towne, interim assistant vice president at Riverside who oversees clinicians in six area police departments, said this program has been very successful from the state’s perspective. “[It] eliminates visits to the ER. The police uphold the law and serve and protect, but they were used as social workers in situations they weren’t trained for,” he said. “The hope is to fully address a person’s needs there in the moment and send the officer off to the next emergency situation in a faster way.” 

Towne said that since implementing partnerships with police departments, he has seen a “very measurable reduction in arrests and police bringing individuals to emergency departments.” Other towns are now looking into a similar collaboration. 

Turnbull said that the work ebbs and flows based on a number of variables. “It changes throughout the weeks and months,” she said. “Holidays always bring a shift in dynamics in people. Coming home from college, seeing family they haven’t seen in a while … it can be positive and negative. Coming out of winter ramps up, October and November, quite high, then people go away for the holidays. Coming back the following February/March, that’s when it seems to start to increase a little bit.” 

She said the biggest challenge right now is how stretched town and state mental health resources are, making it more difficult to always access the right type of support.  

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