Funding for a second mental health clinician was added to the Watertown Police Department as part of the $152 million Town Budget approved by the Town Council this week.
Town Manager Michael Driscoll announced the addition of $45,000 for the clinician at Monday night’s Public Hearing on the Fiscal Year 2021 budget. The move was made after the Council’s budget hearing held on June 24, when several people requested the Town ad more mental health professionals and to do so by reducing the Police Department’s budget. Driscoll said the new position would be funded using money left in the Town’s Free Cash fund at the end of Fiscal Year 2020, so it did not come out of the WPD’s budget.
After last week’s meeting, Driscoll spoke with Watertown Police Chief Michael Lawn about adding another clinician, who would also work with the WPD’s jail diversion program. In 2011, Watertown began using a clinician to go out on calls with police on non-criminal mental health related issues, becoming the second department in the state to have one.
Police have a contract with Advocates to provide the person, who has “training in and has handled persons in crises far beyond a normal social worker,” Lawn wrote in a memo to Driscoll. The Chief added that, currently, the clinician works 40 hours a week, Monday through Friday and the person splits time working between two of the WPD’s shifts. The clinician has dealt with more than 300 mental health issues over each of the past two years, Driscoll said.
“The inclusion of a second mental health clinician would greatly increase the department’s capability to meet the needs of those in crisis on a broader scale,” Lawn said.
He added that the department would have more coverage, including availability of a clinician on weekends, and the second person could overlap with the current clinician during times of greater call volumes.
Many of the people who made the request to divert funding for the police to hire more mental health and social workers also commented during Monday’s meeting. They said they were happy to see a second mental health clinician added to the Watertown Police, but they called for the Council to take a closer look at the WPD’s budget during the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget process.
Zack Rocklin Waltch was one of those who asked for the Council to conduct “an investigation and submit a report detailing the types of services the Watertown Police is currently providing.”
He added that he hoped the Council would “assess whether those services would be better provided by different social services professionals, such as trained, social workers responding to metal health crises or trained health care professionals responding to opioid overdoses.”
Others residents said they didn’t want to see money taken away from the Watertown Police Budget. Scott Hand said he believes the police do a great job protecting the community.
“In terms of an investigation, bring it on,” Hand said. “What we need to do is support our police. They have done an incredible job. There is nothing in their record — if there is no body’s heard of it. I think we should be standing with our Police Department.”
Resident Elodia Thomas said she believes Chief Lawn and the police have done an excellent job building good relationships in the community, and those making the demands should delve deeper into the issues. She suggested that some of them attend the WPD Citizen’s Police Academy to learn what police officers do on a day-to-day basis.
“It is difficult when you talk about investigations. It sounds like an adversarial relationship, rather than getting to know more about what’s going on in this town,” Thomas said. “I am very excited to see younger people getting involved, but I suggest you get involved across the town in various issues, and not just jump on a bandwagon with a very defined, wrote declaration week after week.”
Resident Russ Arico said that he believes the effort to take money away from the police, for other services is misguided.
“Do not disrespect the many for the horrible acts of the few,” Arico said. “Those who want to defund the police force are pandering and lack leadership.”
Daniel Damico said he wants to see some balance between supporting police and looking at whether the Town could improve the way issues are handled.
“Vilifying the cops will not improve our neighborhood, nor will we ever make progress if we refuse to question leaders and make it known that we expect that they strive for improvement,” Damico said.
He added that the upcoming accreditation process for the Police Department is an opportunity to recognize the improvements made by the WPD, and to provide resources for areas where they need to make progress. Also, if more clinicians are needed, that should be considered if it will help the community.
Council President Mark Sideris said he believes the Town Council appreciated all the input from residents and that the Council will begin to look at various issues raised.
“At the next Council meeting we are going to refer some of the issues you talked about and we will begin the process,” Sideris said. “It is going to take a while. I hope you can join us to make sure we are addressing all these issue. We will walk through this slowly and we will make sure we get it right.”