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Boston to add 15 more clinicians to help police with mental health calls

Police tape marked a crime scene on Washington Street in Dorchester earlier this year.
Police tape marked a crime scene on Washington Street in Dorchester earlier this year.Jessica Rinaldi

Boston authorities are adding 15 social workers to a team that helps police respond to calls involving people with mental health problems, and other difficult situations, more than quadrupling the number of such clinicians. The city is funding the new posts through money reallocated from BPD’s overtime coffers in the most recent operating budget, according to officials.

The clinicians are being hired and contracted through Boston Medical Center but are answerable to Boston police in a process that is ongoing, said Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George on Friday. A timeline for when the new clinicians would be hired and start work was not immediately clear Friday.

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She welcomed the incoming additions to the Boston Emergency Services Team, or BEST. The new positions would bring the number of BEST clinicians assisting police in the city to 19 from four.

“We know that so many of our residents don’t need a police response, they need a mental health response,” said Essaibi-George.

Among the new posts, authorities are considering adding a clinical supervisor; more district-level clinicians where needed; and positions that would focus on street outreach and family justice, which would include sexual assault and human trafficking; according to a presentation that Jenna Savage, the deputy director of the department’s office of research & development, gave to a city council committee on Thursday.

“Increasing the size of the BEST team, in my opinion, is essential for city services,” said Boston police Sergeant Peter Messina, of the department’s street outreach unit during Thursday’s hearing. “I only see positives to it.”

In 2019, Boston police responded to at least 9,600 calls involving an “emotionally disturbed person,” or EDP, and the department also responded to “many other types of calls that involve mental health and/or substance abuse,” according to Savage’s presentation.

“People wanted clinicians because they realized so many of these calls were about mental health,” Assaibi-George said on Friday. “I believe cops don’t want to arrest our way out of these problems. They want residents to get the help they need.”

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In a Friday statement, Councilor Andrea Campbell said the clinicians also will respond to incidents involving homelessness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and “other issues involving health and trauma.” Expanding the number of clinicians, she said, “is absolutely critical to shifting our overall approach to public safety away from an approach that relies too heavily on policing and incarceration and toward a community health and service approach.”

“The BEST team has an amazing partnership with our police department that I’d like to see continue to expand,” said Campbell.

Earlier this year, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced he would be reallocating $12 million of the Boston police overtime budget to “make a significant investment in equity and inclusion.” Those investments included $2 million for additional clinicians and “mental health supports” at the department.

“Community engagement is at the heart of our public safety work in Boston, and that includes providing mental health services,” Walsh said in a statement Friday. “I’m proud our budget will continue to support and expand these services as we put people first, and increase mental health services for those in the most need.”

That proposal came amid calls, both in the streets and during council hearings, for substantial change that would help dismantle systems that perpetuate racism.

After a fierce debate about police reform, the council passed the mayor’s budget, which included the police overtime reallocation, with some councilors opposing the budget, saying it did not do enough to fight economic and racial inequalities and help communities of color.

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Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.