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RI POLICING

Providence picks 2 groups to take on behavioral health calls instead of police

Mental health calls to the police department grew by 92 percent from 2018 to last year in Providence, the mayor said

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza at a press conference in July 2020.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza at a press conference in July 2020.Dan McGowan/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — The city of Providence picked two local organizations to develop a new behavioral crisis response program, a way to divert certain police calls to professionals like social workers or clinicians instead.

The Providence Center, which provides addiction and psychiatric treatment and is part of the Care New England system, and Family Service of Rhode Island, a nonprofit social services organization, will lead the effort to create a new system in Providence. Their contract is for $123,170. Another $600,000 to actually start implementing the program was passed in the most recent budget.

They’ll work for the next month to sort out details like what types of calls they’d respond to, how many people would work in this program, and how independently they’d work from the police and fire departments. They expect to report back in November.

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But in Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s opinion, in the future, someone should be able to call 911 and hear a dispatcher ask whether it’s a police, fire or mental health emergency call.

“We were at the forefront of policing 20 years ago,” Elorza said at a news conference held at the Branch Avenue fire station. “I want us to be at the forefront of policing 20 years from now.”

Mental health calls to the police department grew by 92 percent from 2018 to last year in Providence, Elorza said. Earlier this week, police were able to dissuade a man from jumping from an I-95 overpass. But incidents like that raise the question: Are the police the most appropriate people to respond to those sorts of incidents?

The organizations will work with a steering committee, which will include a high-ranking police official, Black Lives Matter RI PAC’s Harrison Tuttle, and Coleen Daley Ndoye, the head of the harm reduction and recovery organization Project Weber/RENEW. They’ll also hold a series of four community meetings.

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“There’s no doubt in my mind the difference that’s going to come out of having a peer and perhaps a counselor or therapist to come out and respond to these individuals,” said Dennis Bailer, Project Weber/RENEW’s overdose prevention program coordinator who himself has dealt with behavioral health and substance use issues. “We have to meet this issue head-on, with the individuals who have the proper tools to not escalate a situation but de-escalate and make sure they get the proper referrals and treatment they need.”

The Providence police already partner with social workers, but there aren’t enough resources for it, city officials said Thursday.

The city of Providence has been the focus of protests in the last year over police. Elorza’s most recently enacted budget included $2 million more for the police department. Critics of Elorza, including council members who voted against the budget, said the budget didn’t go far enough in reforming the police.

But Elorza said programs like this, which would eventually grow over the years, is just one of the ways he’s trying to transform the Providence police.


Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.