Two people in crisis shot dead by police, two years apart. Will Massachusetts rethink armed response to mental health emergencies?

Almost exactly two years later, another police shooting unfolded with dismaying similarity in Cambridge. On…

Two people in crisis shot dead by police, two years apart. Will Massachusetts rethink armed response to mental health emergencies?

Almost exactly two years later, another police shooting unfolded with dismaying similarity in Cambridge. On Jan. 4, 20-year-old Sayed Faisal was fatally shot by police after authorities said he wielded a knife on them. The University of Massachusetts Boston student, officials said, was using the knife to cut himself before he was approached by officers.

Both cases have reignited calls to send trained clinicians to mental health crises, instead of armed officers, with the goal of preventing yet another fatality in similar incidents.

“In the ideal, communities have a mechanism for a trained police presence when necessary, available as an alternative or in conjunction with trained mental health clinicians who can respond and evaluate the situation with a more professional eye,” said Timothy Burton, criminal justice diversion manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts.

Some Massachusetts communities are already trying. In July, Amherst swore in the state’s first team of unarmed responders. Meanwhile, similar efforts by Cambridge and Lynn have inched along over the past year, amid fierce debate over who should oversee crisis workers and how closely they should work with police.

While joint responses by police and crisis workers to certain emergencies are used across the state, including in Boston, Lowell, and Framingham, a fully unarmed alternative has been slower to gain traction.

Cambridge’s unarmed response team, HEART, was formed by community organizers in 2021, but efforts to partner directly with the city have stalled, so crisis workers can only offer care before or after an emergency. Though they are trained in crisis intervention, there is currently no mechanism for dispatchers to call them to mental health emergencies like Faisal’s. The program is funded through grants and community donations, but activists have called on the city to pay for it.

Proponents of unarmed response say only trained clinicians have the necessary expertise to deescalate volatile mental health emergencies. But skeptics point to a host of safety concerns clinicians may face, particularly in calls involving a weapon.

“There’s nobody that would send a social worker out to a situation by themselves when there’s a weapon involved,” said Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern, who worked for decades as a social worker.

McGovern called Faisal’s death a “tragedy” but said he believes that even if crisis workers had been called, the situation still would have required police on scene.

“People have this idea that if we just do de-escalation, everything turns out fine,” McGovern said. “Most of the time it does, which is why I believe in it. But it doesn’t work all the time.”

The model most often cited in Massachusetts started in Eugene, Oregon, which has an emergency response group called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, or CAHOOTS, that can be dispatched alongside police. But, unlike the co-response model widely adopted across the Commonwealth, crisis workers are not an “integrated” part of the police response, said Berkley Carnine, a CAHOOTS worker.

“Even when we respond at the same time, [crisis workers] still have the ability to decide with police, ‘You guys can go,’” Carnine explained. “And we then get to make the decisions about how we’re going to show up for this person.”

Carnine stressed the critical role 911 dispatchers play in assessing the risk of danger in a mental health emergency and said crisis workers will sometimes respond to dangerous situations if a dispatcher is confident the weapon is already secured or believes crisis workers can work with the person to put away the weapon.

“But, if someone says they’re going to stay safe with themselves and then begins to immediately self-harm, that is not our role to physically restrain people. So then we will have to call police,” Carnine said.

Melissa Morabito, an associate professor of criminology and justice studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, also singled out dispatchers as make-or-break elements of a successful crisis response. Dispatchers who aren’t well-informed about the capabilities of trained clinicians are prone to view police as the only safe option.

“Dispatchers want to minimize maximum harm,” she said. “So they may overemphasize dangers, and that’s the information they’re sharing with the police.”

Rather than pushing for outright replacement of police with unarmed responders, some advocates instead call for a joint response that prioritizes improved, and more frequent, training of police in de-escalation and crisis intervention.

In Massachusetts, local police must meet statewide training standards outlined by the Municipal Police Training Committee. But it’s up to individual departments to decide whether to provide additional training, according to Cambridge Police spokesman Jeremy Warnick.

In a given year, Warnick said Cambridge officers can receive up to four different kinds of training in de-escalation and firearms use, in addition to trauma-informed training and crisis intervention training, or CIT. Officers have been participating in CIT, which is offered by the National Association for Mental Illness, since 2014, Warnick said. However, only about half of the department’s officers have received it to date.

Warnick declined to say if the officer who shot Faisal was trained in CIT, saying only that the officer has spent seven years on the force with no public complaints.

And since Conlon’s death in Newton two years ago, police spokeswoman Lieutenant Amanda Hendrickson said, the department has joined the One Mind Campaign launched by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It requires participating departments to train at least 20 percent of their officers in CIT and the other 80 percent in mental health first aid.

One third of Newton officers have completed CIT, and Hendrickson said “our hope is that we can have all our officers trained, to help them understand on a human level what someone could be going through.”

But for families of those killed at the hands of police, no amount of training can replace the alternative: unarmed mental health professionals.

“I don’t think the police should be handling the mental health calls at all,” Betsy Conlon said. “They need somebody that’s trained that knows about how to deal with what a person could be going through in that moment.”

Betsy and Rob Conlon, with a picture display that was used during a celebration of life for their son, Michael, in Medfield. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Experts agree the focus should be on minimizing interactions between people struggling with mental health conditions and law enforcement altogether, by addressing a person’s needs before the situation reaches a crisis point.

“I think the mistake is to rely solely on the police for all of us,” said Morabito, the UMass Lowell professor, instead of “making other services available before it gets to the point where there’s nothing else to do but call 911.”

Despite urgent demands from advocates, the move to a city-funded, autonomous unarmed response team in Cambridge will likely progress one modest step at a time. Warnick said Cambridge police support an alternative response, but “with the understanding that it’s not applicable in every situation.”

Faisal’s death in Cambridge remains under investigation. A court inquest, meanwhile, determined that Newton officers were not criminally responsible for Michael Conlon’s death, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan announced in May 2022. But on the two-year anniversary of their son’s death, the Conlons sued five Newton officers and the city — one day after Faisal was killed.

Betsy Conlon hopes the lawsuit will pressure local officials statewide to fundamentally change who responds to calls for people struggling with mental health challenges.

“Anytime [I] hear of a shooting with somebody that’s having a mental health crisis, it just all comes back,” she said. “That pain that I know those parents are going through … it just shouldn’t have to happen.”

Sonel Cutler can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @cutler_sonel. Ivy Scott can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.