WEST SPRINGFIELD — About a dozen times a week, a West Springfield police radio crackles to life and the department’s newest member rushes out the door to help somebody.
Ariana Ploran isn’t armed. She’s not an officer. She’s not even an employee of the town. For West Springfield residents whose mental health or substance abuse problems bring them into contact with the police, however, she’s something more important: a clinician.
Although she works at the West Springfield Police Department, she’s paid by the Springfield-based nonprofit Behavioral Health Network Inc. Her job is to accompany police on nonviolent calls where someone may need some form of counseling or mental health services.
“The police aren’t always equipped to handle these kinds of services,” said Sgt. Joseph LaFrance of the West Springfield police. “She’s been on numerous calls since we put this program in place” in April.
Ploran was not available for comment this week. Sean Bannon, the coordinator of BHN’s Law Enforcement Program and a former co-response clinician himself, said the program has already proven its success in Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke. The clinicians in those cities have responded to a variety of calls.
“Every day is different,” he said. “I had been there to assist individuals who were barricaded, threatening ‘suicide by cop,’ all the way down to I’ve provided trauma support for some individuals who had been involved in an industrial accident downtown.”
The police aren’t the only agency that benefits from the partnership with BHN, LaFrance said. In the past, people taken into custody for mental health or substance abuse reasons would be transported to an emergency room by ambulance.
“I think it was overwhelming the Fire Department,” LaFrance said. “These ambulances were constantly coming out to crisis calls and having to bring that person over to the hospital.”
Bannon said many of the calls that co-response clinicians answer don’t require a hospital visit at all. Often, the clinician can offer counseling on the spot, or set up an appointment with a counselor. For those with more immediate needs, BHN can provide transportation to its own crisis center on Liberty Street in Springfield.
The clinician does not respond immediately to violent calls, LaFrance said. In those cases, armed officers would make sure everyone is safe before calling in the clinician. Nor does the presence of a mental health expert change police procedures for maintaining public safety and taking a suspected criminal into custody.
“If someone has committed a crime where there is another victim, we’re going to treat that differently” from a case of self-harm or drug abuse, LaFrance said.
Ploran works four 10-hour shifts each week. Although BHN offers mental health services throughout metro Springfield, Ploran is assigned specifically to West Springfield. During times when she is not on duty, police can call BHN and ask for a clinician to be sent from its Springfield offices.
When they are not out on emergency calls, clinicians will make follow-up visits to previous patients, Bannon said.
West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt applauded BHN for proposing the partnership, and police chief Paul Connor for working with the agency.
“Given the complexity of mental health issues and the public’s reliance on the Police Department in times of crisis, I am pleased that we are adapting to meet the needs of our residents and the public at large by providing access to appropriate services for those facing an issue that may not be appropriate for the criminal justice system,” Reichelt said in a statement.
He emphasized that the co-response program does not cost local taxpayers anything. Bannon said the program is funded by a combination of state grants and BHN charges to insurance companies when the agency provides its own services to individuals.
BHN operates health and social services programs at 40 locations throughout the Pioneer Valley, including residential and outpatient services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders and intellectual or developmental disabilities.
The agency has clinicians assigned to local hospitals, and keeps track of which towns send the most patients to emergency rooms for mental health or substance abuse reasons, Bannon said. In 2019, in an effort to treat those patients before they reach the hospital, BHN started its co-response program with the Springfield Police Department.
It now has five clinicians assigned to the Springfield Police, as well as one each for Chicopee and Holyoke, and one who works a night shift covering Chicopee, Granby and South Hadley. West Springfield was the next community on the list, Bannon said.
He said his next priority is Westfield, as well as reactivating a co-response program in the eastern Pioneer Valley, covering towns such as Palmer and Ware.