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City councilors share focus on mental health as top priority in police budget

From better access to counseling for officers to a more holistic approach to community policing, allocating funds to mental health programs is at the forefront of early conversations about this year’s policing budget

The swearing in of a new class of recruits for the Boston Police Department.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

With Mayor Michelle Wu slated to present her proposed budget to the City Council on Wednesday, one area has emerged as a priority for several councilors preparing to review this year’s Police Department spending: more money for mental health.

“I would like to see if [the mayor has made] movement toward greater investment in mental health supports and interventions,” said Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, chair of the Ways and Means Committee. “What are the initiatives and what are the plans for implementation in the coming year?”

Councilors named a variety of programs they would like to see implemented or expanded, including crisis and de-escalation training for officers, and more widespread counseling options for officers routinely experiencing trauma.

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Several councilors also expressed support for hiring more social workers and mental health clinicians who can respond to emergencies alongside police officers.

“We’ve made efforts in prior budgets to divert certain 911 calls to mental health specialists and treatment and recovery specialists. That program seems to have demonstrated some success, so we obviously need to continue to fund that,” Councilor Michael Flaherty said in reference to the Boston Emergency Services Team (BEST), specialists who accompany police responding to mental health crises.

Councilor Liz Breadon said she will also support efforts to bolster programs like BEST and hopes the council will evaluate the demand for clinicians “to see if we need to put more resources into the mental health team.”

The debate over next year’s budget, which takes effect July 1, will likely last months. Discussions in the past two years have become more contentious amid calls from community activists to defund the police and an overtime scandal that has called the city’s oversight of the department’s spending into question.

Councilor Erin Murphy said expanding crisis training for officers is also a priority and that employees citywide should be better equipped to respond to mental health emergencies.

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“Any city employee could benefit from more mental health training,” she said, so that officers are “not waiting for and reacting to” but instead responding to situations with prevention and de-escalation procedures already in mind. That level of engagement will likely require funding for more police officers, Murphy added, to curb overtime spending.

“I don’t see us cutting the [overall] budget,” she said. “If there’s an increase, it’s going to be in staffing. Forced overtime costs the city a lot, so if we invest in hiring a diverse group of young adults, we save money overall and recruit a police force that reflects all our neighborhoods.”

Councilor Ed Flynn also expressed his support for hiring “several hundred police officers due to overstretched resources, forced overtime, and looming retirements.”

But other councilors warned higher spending doesn’t guarantee improved public safety.

“The police budget is the second largest expenditure in our city, and a lot of that is reactive,” said Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who called for the Police Department’s gang database to be abolished, with the savings set aside “to create and buttress strong nonprofits that are really doing the work of [crime] prevention.”

Pointing to research indicating that neighborhoods with stronger nonprofits have lower crime rates, Louijeune stressed that “if we are really interested in investing in prevention and not reactionary measures, which is oftentimes what policing is, then we need to be building up our communities on the front end and making sure they have the resources to thrive.”

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Louijeune also said she would support shifting certain police responsibilities, such as traffic enforcement, to civilians in an effort to reduce costs.

Fernandes Anderson said the city also has a responsibility to improve access to counseling for officers and encourage them to seek help.

“De-stigmatizing mental health within the department is super important because our police officers are human beings, too. They suffer from some level of PTSD and are dealing with their own mental health issues,” she said. “If you have people that are overworked, sleep-deprived, and witnessing or experiencing various traumas, who then go back on the job, what does that mean for public safety?”

But like other councilors, Fernandes Anderson underscored that a policing budget that best addresses the needs of the city must be multifaceted, counting mental health as just one piece of a larger public safety puzzle.


Ivy Scott can be reached at ivy.scott@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.