BOSTON — For Eliza Williamson, who was found clenching the broken end of a bottle near a Mansfield concert venue in the late 1990s, the responding police officer's demeanor meant everything.
"What I remember is his voice. He said, 'I'm Mike. What's your name?' I remembered that he squatted down instead of standing over me," Williamson recalled in testimony before the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse on Tuesday. She said, "He didn't rush me. He didn't touch me. He didn't raise his voice. Eventually I came out of the bushes and went with Mike to the hospital."
Williamson, a survivor of a sexual assault in college, had been set off by a stranger's touch after stumbling at Lilith Fair, during a performance by Sheryl Crow, she told the News Service.
"I felt his hand on my arm. I smelled beer and sweat and too much cologne, and boom, gone. It's jumbled. I heard my voice scream, 'Don't touch me,'" said Williamson, who was in her mid-20s at the time. She told committee members she suffered from mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
The calm approach of the officer who shepherded her to treatment is a protocol Williamson and others want to see adopted across the state through a bill (S 2320) establishing a center of excellence in community policing and behavioral health.
Lynda Roseman, the mother of a veteran who she said struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and abuse of inhalants after returning from combat, said she expected help when the Brookline police showed up at her son's place in March 2014.
Roseman said her son had served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps, received an honorable discharge and had shrapnel in his back from an improvised explosive device. When she arrived at his apartment her son was high, Roseman said, and he took out a knife when she told him she was going to call an ambulance, so Roseman called 911 and told the dispatcher about her son's condition, informing the person on the other end of the line that she was safe.
"I was actually feeling hopeful as I waited for the police to arrive. I thought he would finally get the treatment he needed," Roseman told the committee. She said, "What I now know is the responding officers did exactly what they were trained to do: They charged up stairs, banged on my son's door demanding he open it. As a result my son did exactly what he was trained to do . . . When he finally opened the door he was in a combat stance wielding a knife."
Roseman's son was shot in the chest by Brookline police, and later pled guilty to 10 felony charges, including assault with intent to murder, receiving 10 years of probation with GPS monitoring, and a requirement of treatment through the Veterans Administration, she said.
Brookline now trains every officer in "de-escalation response" and how to handle mental health and substance abuse response, said Roseman.
"When we go to these calls if we don't slow things down they turn into crises very quickly," Brookline Police Deputy Superintendent Michael Gropman told the committee. Gropman said he has a child with a mental health disorder and described an incident where police were able to calm down a child who wielded a knife and begged police to kill him.
The center established by the bill would serve as a "clearinghouse for best practices," develop training curriculum for local police, help municipalities partner with treatment services and measure the success of the programs. The bill would first, subject to appropriation, develop a planning process for the center.
"Do we have a concept of how we would pay for this?" asked Rep. Liz Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat and the House chairwoman of the committee.
Annabel Lane, the criminal justice coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Massachusetts, said additional training could be done for about $1.5 to $1.7 million annually.
Lane said Massachusetts has a "strong police academy system" and her group has worked to increase the training of new recruits. Lane also said the Bay State is "way behind the rest of the country" on providing the sort of training called for in the bill, and many municipalities in Massachusetts lack access to such training programs.
Ashland Police Chief Craig Davis said training for dealing with people experiencing behavioral health incidents is "fragmented and haphazard" and the bill is the "right step."
The bill was filed on April 8 by Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat.
Police use-of-force, especially against black people, was launched into the national discourse in 2014 by the high-profile deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, among others, and the demonstrations that followed.
Williamson said she now works helping to train police and at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI. Praising the local Veterans Administration, Roseman said her son is in his third treatment program, in Brockton, and working on the campus.
"He's actually doing pretty well," Roseman told the News Service.