Mayor Myrick at a police press conference in January. (Courtesy of the mayor's Facebook page)

Ithaca, N.Y. — ​Police in Burlington, Vt., answered a call late last year about a man with a history of mental illness who was destroying property with a shovel and becoming more menacing.

​When police arrived, the man wielding the shovel rushed an officer threateningly. The officer shot the man and killed him. The police chief believes the presence of a uniform, badge and gun exacerbated an already unstable situation.

​It was in the aftermath of that case that the city and the chief doubled down on a commitment to put more expertise on the streets to deal with an alarming growth in mental-health issues.

A program that started with one “street outreach” worker 15 years ago is evolving rapidly, and has grown now to six-and-a-half positions, two-and-a-half of them embedded in the police department.

Mayor Myrick at a police press conference in January. (Courtesy of the mayor’s Facebook page)

​It is that program that Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick referred to in his recent set of proposals for improving police relations and effectiveness in the community. With a population of 42,000, Burlington is slightly larger than Ithaca and, like it, a college town.

​“Importing a model from Burlington, Vermont,” The Voice previously reported, “Myrick is proposing hiring a social worker to go around downtown and work with the “addicted, unemployed, homeless, and mentally ill.”

​“This outreach worker helps the disenfranchised access resources that can improve their quality of life,” Myrick said.

“The outreach worker also reduces the recurrence of ‘frequent flyers’ to IPD, which will help the Department be more proactive in addressing other community concerns.”

​What is the Burlington model, why is it needed and how is it working? The Voice turned to Burlington Chief of Police Michael Schirling for answers:

​1 — Why embed mental-health social workers in the police department?

​“Our call volume of mental health cases has increased 500% in five years, five hundred,” Chief Schirling said.

And those are the calls that are exclusively mental health issues, not the many more in which mental illness figures in a crime. Street outreach workers “try to handle those issues at the lowest level possible before they turn into crimes.”

​2 — Why the dramatic increase in calls?

​“The mental health system in the United States, the mental health system in Vermont, is in complete disarray,” Schirling said. “We’re using the criminal justice system as a de facto mental health system.”

​“We wait for their behavior to deteriorate — ‘decompensate,’ the mental health professionals call it — and then we throw them in jail. We have shrunk the capacity so far that we don’t have the requisite resources at any level.”

So it is left to emergency rooms and police departments to cope with the problem.

“At every level, we’re beyond our capacity; we’re not doing a good job at any level.”

Schirling said the current record in Burlington for someone waiting in the ER for an acute mental health bed is 27 days.

In response, “We’re building capacity in our police departments to handle something we shouldn’t be handling.”

3 — What are you trying to achieve?

​The main point is to put people on the streets who are trained in dealing with the mentally ill and addicted, work proactively with them and even, now, act as first-responders if public safety is not an immediate concern. They try to defuse situations before they escalate to the level of crimes. If people can be steered to treatment instead of jail, all the better.

​The Burlington Free Press has described the program.

​4 — Is it working?

​​An analysis two years ago showed a drop-off in calls from frequent service users. The day-to-day proactive work with addicted, mentally ill and similar populations seemed to be easing the demand on services and perhaps averting some bigger problems.

Police departments elsewhere, such as Portland, Maine — and now, perhaps, Ithaca — have begun to emulate the program. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has recognized it with an award for quality police work.

​5 — Is this a significant national issue?

​​NPR reported recently that, “Across the country, jails hold 10 times as many people with serious mental illness as state hospitals do, according to a recent report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit that lobbies for better treatment options for people with mental illness.”​

​​NPR was highlighting an innovative program in San Antonio in which every police officer must undergo at least 40 hours of training in dealing with the mentally ill.

​​Click here to read about or listen to the segment

​Schirling said the San Antonio program is known as the “Memphis Model,” and said he prefers a “co-responder” approach in which mental health professionals work alongside police, rather than trying to transfer those skills to the police.

​“60 Minutes” has also aired a segment on the issue, focusing on the young:

‘Nowhere to Go: Mentally Ill Youth in Crisis’: 60 Minutes: 

6 — How much does the program cost the police department?

​“Not a dime,” said the chief. Well, the city chips in $10,000, but the rest of the funding comes from a number of partners: the state department of mental health; United Way; the downtown Church Street Marketplace association; the local hospital. There was a seed grant to get it started.

​The outreach workers are employees of the HowardCenter, a mental health facility. They are not on the police department roster.

7 — Is this a permanent fix for the problem?

​Schirling ardently hopes not. The more effective a program like this becomes, the more tempting it is for a community, for society, to deem the problem solved.

​But police alone cannot fix the problem, he said.

​“Often we’re dealing with folks who are not caught in the cracks, they’re in the chasms — Medicaid doesn’t attach, for some reason; they don’t fit a DSM diagnosis — they don’t fall neatly into a bucket; they’re service-resistant; so we send them the street outreach interventionist.” But that’s a Band-Aid.

​These people need resources of an engaged and well-funded range of resources designed to address deeper problems.

​“Mental health systems have got to systemically change the way that they operate — as quickly as possible,” Schirling said.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.