In Oct. 2020, Milford Councilman Jason James proposed establishing a behavioral health unit within the Milford Police Department. At a recent City Council meeting, Chief Kenneth Brown announced that the department had taken the first step toward establishing mental health services when officers respond to calls by partnering with Partners in Public Safety Solutions, an organization created by retired police officer Amy Kevis.
“Chief Brown approached me about doing similar programs to those we had done in Smyrna and Georgetown which were successful,” Kevis said. “One day, he mentioned that he had received a letter from someone who had expressed interest in working with the department, Jenna Haines.”
Haines, who holds a master’s degree and is a licensed social worker, has experience with the Department of Corrections and the public defender’s office. While earning her master’s degree, Haines had a professor with friends in Boston who worked with law enforcement as a social worker. At her own expense, Haines traveled to Boston and spent several days riding with Boston police and used her experiences as part of her graduate thesis.
“Jenna is not going into this type of work blind,” Kevis said. “She has worked with the criminal justice population and understands that many who enter the system have mental health or substance abuse issues.”
Haines will ride with Milford Police Officers, offering assistance when a call involves someone who is suffering from mental illness or substance abuse. She will provide referrals to treatment, address behavioral health concerns, assist with case management and offer education to those whose run-ins with law enforcement may be related to mental health problems. The details of how Haines will perform her duties are still being worked out, especially due to concerns about COVID.
“Our hope is to reach those whose drug use is in its earliest stages,” Kevis said. “We hear so many times that someone was a college athlete who got hurt and was prescribed pain pills, now they are a heroin addict. We want to try to get them into treatment before they enter the criminal justice system. We know that is not going to happen with everyone. Sometimes, people just need a little handholding and we know it is scary when you enter treatment for the first time.”
Kevis explained that, as a retired police officer, she knows what a culture shock this is for police.
“Officers operate by themselves,” Kevis said. “We get in our car by ourselves and we are trained to respond to a radio call for service. Cops are trained to make arrests but we know arrests are not helping these folks. For the most part, treatment after arrest is not successful while treatment before they enter the criminal justice system is.”
Haines agreed with Kevis’ statement after working in the Department of Corrections.
“In this field, we see a lot of mental health concerns and if the only access to treatment is incarceration, recidivism is high,” Haines said. “When they are in this situation, they are set up for failure. We can’t provide the services people need here. It is quite literally restrictive which is the purpose, so in terms of public safety, it is not helping those who are dealing with substance abuse and behavioral health. Many people who suffer from substance abuse have a dual diagnosis which creates a cycle. Once they have entered the criminal justice system, opportunities are lost, like housing, jobs, vehicles which then can snowball into long-term addiction. What we hope to do with this program is to help those who need mental health treatment rather than putting them into the criminal justice system where they could end up on a downward spiral.”
Kevis explained that even trained police officers have difficulty dealing with someone who is actively psychotic.
“People who are actively psychotic are frightening,” Kevis said. “Some officers may not know how to best deal with individuals who are psychotic which may lead to unnecessary use of force. It is our hope that this program will also educate officers on how to deal with someone who is actively psychotic and provide them with different tools they can use to deal with someone who suffers from mental health or substance abuse issues.”
Chief Brown stated at the council meeting that the department hoped to have Jenna by mid-March.
“I want to thank the chief and Amy,” Councilman James said. “I know when I first presented this for a feasibility study, it was accepted well. The chief took this and ran with it to get it up and running. I think it is critical for the safety of the public and our officers.”