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How Burlington’s Crisis Workers Help Police Deal With People With Mental Illness

courtesy of Matt Young
Supervisor Matt Young (left) and the Howard Center Street Outreach Team (from left to right:) Wayne Bishop, Hannah Toof, Tammy Boudah, Justin Verette and Casey Lee.

The shooting death of an elderly man in Burlington Monday night is raising questions about how police deal with people with mental illness. A Burlington cop shot 76-year-old Ralph Grenon, who was holed up in his downtown apartment.

A state police account says he was shot after behaving violently toward officers. But before the situation escalated, a crisis worker with Burlington's Street Outreach Team was called to the scene to try to calm things down. 

VPR visited the Street Outreach Team's office in downtown Burlington to talk to supervisor Matt Young and Casey Lee, a police interventionist. 

Matt Young, on the Street Outreach Team's mission: 

"We are trying to provide help for a wide range of individuals who are either in the downtown Burlington area or individuals who request assistance, or we're called citywide."

Can you give us some recent examples of how you work in a situation with Burlington Police? What do those situations look like?

"I had a call from Burlington Police [Thursday] where they had a verbal domestic situation going on between two people. And I happen to have worked with one of those individuals in the past. So they asked me to respond to the scene as well. 

"And really all I did was provide support to that one individual, in calming her down and helping talk out the situation with her as well as providing her a ride back to her residence to give her space from the other person that she was having the verbal dispute with.

"It was really about gauging what my prior professional relationship was with this person and providing that person support to calm the situation down."

You've had something like 8,000 contacts in the last year with about 900 or so people. So I imagine you're seeing the same people a lot, you're trying to build relationships with these people so that you could talk to them. Is that the idea? 

"The idea is to build relationships. To be aware of who is new in town. It's a small city. So there are about 900 to 1,100 people every year that we work with. Over the course of that year."

On Monday night's shooting:

A member of the Street Outreach Team was on the scene of Monday night's shooting according to police. Due to the ongoing investigation by the Vermont State Police, Young can't speak about the incident. He did reflect on 76-year-old Ralph Grenon.

"We can say that a good man died and that's the limit of what we will say about that case."

Casey Lee, police interventionist, on his role in situations like Monday night's shooting: 

"We stand back and so the police have cleared the scene or  feel like the potential for violence has dropped or diminished. We are never put in harm's way by officers, we always take directives from them. And usually we're asked to stand by until that violence situation has decreased. And [police are] always looking out for our safety as well. Making sure they are putting us in harm's way." 

When you look at the numbers what do they say about how the Street Outreach Team has worked over the last 15 years?

"We believe it has worked," says Matt Young. "You would have to ask the many people we've worked with over the years whether it's working or not. And not only the people but the providers that we work with — the service providers, the families, the neighbors, the merchants in some cases. You'd have to ask the library, City Hall, jewelry store. A lot of different people would have a take on how effective we have been."

"Our effectiveness, I believe has been more or less limited over the past couple of years by certainly poverty, powerlessness [and] dysfunction instead of what would be considered classic mental health disorders."

"Substance abuse has also complicated the picture. We know that there is a rampant epidemic of opiate abuse. So while we try to evolve as challenges evolve."

"But I think we've been fairly effective. We're certainly not the answer — everyone is looking for the answer — but  we fill that gap where there was no one there before."

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
Alex was a reporter and host of VPR's local All Things Considered. He was also the co-host and co-creator of the VPR program Brave Little State.
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