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Pittsfield moves to hire social workers and co-responders to help people in mental health crisis

press conference on Estrella findings (copy) (copy)

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, second from left, listens Friday as Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington presents findings of her office's investigation into the fatal shooting of Miguel Estrella by a Pittsfield police officer. Standing behind the DA are Assistant District Attorney Jocelyn McGrath and Detective Lt. Ryan Dickinson. Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn is at left.

PITTSFIELD — “Right now.” That’s when Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer would like to have new city employees ready to respond to mental health crises.

But perhaps by September.

On Friday, after sitting for a second briefing on the fatal police shooting of Miguel Estrella, Tyer said steps taken to expand the city’s ability to help people like Estrella are moving forward.

This spring, Pittsfield leaders responded to community calls for specialized responders for mental health crises with a proposal to add licensed social workers and additional co-responders to city payrolls.

That process, initiated during the city’s budget process in May, is entering its next phase.

Tyer says she expects to be advertising positions for two social workers early next month. She spoke after a news conference at which Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington presented findings of a four-month investigation into the shooting. The DA’s office determined that the officer who shot Estrella was legally justified, in light of what the probe determined to be an imminent risk.

“My personal timeline is right now, right now,” Tyer said Friday, when asked when the new staff would start with the city. “But I would say that the first two positions that we’ll seek candidates for will be the two social workers and I would like to start that process by the beginning of September.”

The plan is to hire one licensed social worker to work in the city’s Health Department and one social worker to work in the Pittsfield Police Department.

“Together they’ll work as what we hope to be a source of expertise that I need and Chief [Michael Wynn] needs,” Tyer said.

An in-house social worker for the PPD is a new development, not discussed during the city’s budget hearings.

Tyer said last week that she believed the police department had enough grant money to cover the cost of hiring the social worker for the department. During the budget process, Tyer secured $75,000 to fund the hiring of a licensed social worker to work within the city’s Health Department.

At the time the mayor said she envisioned the social worker’s work being substantially separate from the work of the co-responders.

Clinician-7.jpg

Clinician Richard Collins, who retired in 2021 and is seen here in 2019, was one of the city's co-responders — clinicians working with the Pittsfield Police Department on cases involving mental health components. Pittsfield hopes to hire a batch of new co-responders in the coming months.

“Bearing in mind that we’re not creating a Department of Mental Health and our goal is not to create direct mental health care or to provide clinical services — it is to help the city be more proactive and decisions around how do we network with our partners in the behavioral health field,” Tyer told the City Council in May.

Tyer said the Health Department position would focus on evaluating clinical approaches proposed in the wake of Estrella’s March 25 death.

Since 2016, the Brien Center and PPD have partnered to have a Brien Center clinician respond alongside Pittsfield Police on calls that have “a mental health or substance misuse component,” according to the center’s website. At the time of Estrella’s death, the city had two clinicians serving in this role. The co-responder on duty that night ended their shift minutes before the initial 911 calls for aid for Estrella came in.

Wynn said Friday following the DA’s press conference that the department is now down to one clinician.

City leaders, community members and organizations have called on the administration to consider other options besides a co-responder program which is inherently tied to a police response.

In May, the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP called for the city to move away from a police response in instances of mental health crises to non-violent means.

The local chapter endorsed a piece of legislation known as the ACES Bill (H.2519), which would create alternatives for community emergency services. Filed in February 2021 by Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, that bill would allow cities and towns to create “a division of civilian mental health advocates” who would respond to mental health crises without police.

On Tuesday, Councilor Ken Warren petitioned the council to appropriate $75,000 to explore the creation of an alternative for community emergency services. The council unanimously supported the effort, sending the petition to Tyer to find the money to direct into studying alternatives.

The city is still pursuing a more robust co-responder program, directed this time by the second of the licensed social worker positions. This time, co-responders will be hired directly through the police department rather than the Brien Center.

The City Council and Wynn agreed that $250,000 in grant funds to the department would be repurposed to cover the cost of hiring of co-responders.

How many will be hired is still up in the air.

“As I’ve said before, I’d like to have [a co-responder] in every one of our working groups, which would be 18 but I’m not going to get that [with this fiscal package],” Wynn said.

Still to be worked out are the job descriptions and salaries for these positions. Those issues were set to come before the Personnel Review Board during its Friday meeting. That gathering was canceled and a new meeting has not been rescheduled.

Tyer said she remains dedicated to getting these positions created and staff on a quick timeline.

“I really am pushing the team to accelerate this process [to hire additional co-responders and licensed social workers],” Tyer said. “It’s not the only solution. We need a much bigger, broader community based solution. It’s my hope that our two new social workers can help us build out that network, strengthen those relationships, so that we can be doing more beyond a co-responder program.”

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6149.

Pittsfield Reporter

Meg Britton-Mehlisch is the Pittsfield reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. Born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, she previously worked at the Prior Lake American and its sister publications under the Southwest News Media umbrella in Savage, Minnesota.

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