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Kerri Nicoll, bottom row, addresses the Williamstown Select Board on Monday night.

Williamstown Select Board Gets Details on Policing Needs Research

By Stephen Dravis
iBerkshires Staff
02:42AM / Thursday, January 07, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two social workers who have been advising the town in how to approach mental health issues explained the scope of their research to the Select Board on Monday night.
Kerri Nicoll and Abby Reifsnyder joined the board during its virtual meeting to talk about how those issues, which currently fall into the lap of the Williamstown Police Department, might be better addressed by other means.
Nicoll, a professor of social work at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and member of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, and Reifsnyder, a therapist and educator who has worked in the North Adams Public Schools, talked about a study the town is commissioning.
"In social work, when we talk about mental health, we're using a pretty broad definition of that," Nicoll said. "So we are not just talking about who is having a mental health crisis and needs to be transported to a hospital right now. We're talking about people's well-being.
"The [request for proposals] was really intended to find someone who would do a deep dive into what are the needs in our community that are being responded to by police, not being responded to by police, how does this fit with how people feel about community safety and well-being in general."
Town Manager Jason Hoch's fiscal 2021 budget plan included a $60,000 appropriation "to actively work on alternate approaches and more proactive support for mental health related issues now reaching the town through the Police Department," according to his memo to the town's Finance Committee.
On Tuesday, Hoch confirmed the town is working on an agreement with social workers Jennifer James of North Adams and Christina Daignault of Pittsfield to conduct the research.
"[James] is really formulating a research plan that involves both working with the police department in terms of looking at data and records for the kinds of calls they respond to, the numbers of calls and how they respond to those," Nicoll said. "And, then, also, there will be a really big community outreach and input piece were … it will likely entail things like interviews and focus groups with community members to find out what interactions have been like with police, what does safety in this community mean to you, what does well-being in this community mean to you. Basically, it's trying to identify what are the needs in the community and what do people want from police and other community supports."
The question echoes a national conversation about reallocating municipal funding away from conventional law enforcement and toward social services, both to reduce police involvement in matters that don't require an armed officer and to better address the issues that sometimes lead to police-citizen interactions.
At a public forum last summer, the leaders of the Williamstown Police Department acknowledged that police officers are not trained mental health professionals, but pointed out that those mental health professionals cannot fully take the place of law enforcement officers.
"We respond to many, many, many mental health scenarios, and while we receive training in mental health, to recognize it, the only tool in our tool box is to get the person to a hospital to see a professional, to figure out if it is a mental health crisis," then-Chief Kyle Johnson said.
Lt. Michael Ziemba, currently the acting chief of police, said there are times when a police officer is needed to defuse a situation.
"The ones that don't go voluntarily, and we get the call from the Brien Center that we have to force them to go because they're having a crisis, a regular social worker can't handle that because they're not police officers," Ziemba said. "They're not trained or equipped to go hands-on, where we are."
The needs assessment the town is commissioning will look at whether Williamstown might benefit from a different approach to residents' mental health issues.
Reifsnyder told the Select Board she did some preliminary research while helping to develop the research plan, and she spent several hours at the department talking to its personnel and listening to the kinds of calls that come into the station.
"One example of a call that came in that you might not think of as a mental health call but was definitely a social services type call was somebody complaining about the thing their neighbor was doing," Reifsnyder said. "And my conversation with the chief at the time was that they get a lot of calls like that are not anything the police can do something about. They have to go. They have to show up. But they aren't arrestable offenses. They aren't things police are trained to do.
"We social workers are trained to do that -- to go, to mediate and help to solve problems. My conversation with the chief indicated they would be more than happy to not have those kinds of calls."
The Select Board members said they want to develop a new vision for policing in town informed by James and Daignault's research. But member Andrew Hogeland asked whether preliminary results of that research could be available sooner rather than later to facilitate a search that begins in earnest within the next six months.
Reifsnyder cautioned that research takes time but indicated the project is on an aggressive timetable.
"I know the two social workers that have been hired to work on this, working to put together a timeline and scope," she said. "You'll get that information fairly soon. They both are very experienced and I think will be able to hit the ground running and be able to provide a fair amount of information fairly quickly.
"But research, if you really want to do good research, takes time."

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