As a police officer and now as Hinesburg’s chief, Anthony Cambridge has worked to help his community members in their time of need.

But there are limits to what he can do.

“There’s been times over the years where I’ve thought, ‘I wish I could do more for this person,’” he said.

Since swearing in, Cambridge has made it his goal to address mental health incidents and other needs in his community. Joining the Howard Center’s Community Outreach program — which partners police officers and social workers to help people with unmet social service needs — was among his top priorities.

Now the town will pursue it.

In a unanimous vote on Oct. 21, selectboard members agreed to a six-month trial of the partnership, using money from the current budget to cover the cost.

The six months of service will begin on Jan. 1, 2021. The cost will be about half of the $7,151 fee charged for a 12-month partnership, said selectboard chair Phil Pouech.

The town could opt to budget for continued services in its next fiscal year budget proposal.

“We really feel this would be a value add for the community of Hinesburg, for the town of Hinesburg, and for the Hinesburg Community Police Department,” town administrator Renae Marshall said.

The Howard Center’s Community Outreach program was launched in April 2018, now pairing mental health specialists with seven local police departments including: South Burlington, Winooski, Essex, Colchester, Shelburne, Williston and Richmond.

Howard Center employees meet with people who have unfulfilled social service needs, often stemming from mental health or substance use issues, and connect them with local services.

Outreach workers can be called directly via a hotline or asked to check in with people by partnering police departments, said Jeff Cook, the Community Outreach team lead.

Following the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota, under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, there has been national momentum to “defund the police” or divest funds traditionally reserved for law enforcers into funding social workers and therapists to respond to certain emergency calls.

But Hinesburg’s vision for community policing predates current events, Cambridge said.

“This is something we were moving toward, even before anything happened nationwide,” he said. “We were founded as a community police department. So, we’ve always had sort of a different style.”

Cambridge didn’t share the percentage of Hinesburg Police Department’s calls that are related to mental health incidents, but said they are steady.

“What’s happening, though, is people are realizing, police are realizing, the public is realizing, that we have a need to address mental health issues,” he said.

It’s important that Hinesburg officers have all the training and resources they need to respond to these calls, Cambridge said.

Cook and four social workers staff the program. Their days begin wherever they are needed based on calls and requests from community members and police in participating towns, Cook said. People can call the outreach team directly — at no cost to them — with questions, concerns and other needs.

Callers can choose to remain anonymous, Cook said.

Outreach workers can also ride along with police officers, join them at a scene or follow up with a person in need, Cook said.

“When you ask a police officer, the biggest thing is that they don’t have a ton of training in mental health. So, it’s not about them being able to handle it, it’s about also knowing the resources that are out there,” Cook said.

Lila Webb is a licensed clinical mental health counselor who practices in Charlotte. She was excited to hear about Hinesburg’s new partnership with Community Outreach.

“Having crossover between mental health providers and law enforcement officers, is a move in the right direction. There’s a lot of crossover in terms of the populations that both of those entities serve — or there can be, anyway,” Webb said.

She likes a partnership between the police and mental health care workers as opposed to replacing law enforcement with mental health counseling and professionals.

“I think that that’s a huge mistake. The more we can invite crossing over lines the better and kind of taking the strengths of both skill sets and combining them is what I would like to see,” she said.

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