The death of 20-year-old Sayed Faisal, who was shot by Cambridge police in early January during what appears to have been a mental health crisis, has sparked a discussion about alternatives to sending armed police to respond to mental health calls. It's a conversation that's been underway in Cambridge and other Massachusetts cities for years before this fatal incident. GBH News Reporter Craig LeMoult spoke with GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath about these ongoing conversations. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: In a statement last week, the Cambridge city manager pledged that Cambridge will use alternative responses outside of the police department for some emergency calls. What kind of alternative responses is Cambridge looking at?

Craig LeMoult: Yeah, what happened is after the murder of George Floyd, Cambridge City Council created a task force to examine what they call the future of public safety. And that task force made its recommendations in May of 2021. They included the creation of a new community safety department, which was outside of police. It'll be made up of peer counselors and mental health professionals who would respond to some nonviolent calls that are currently handled by police.

The city allocated $3 million for that department, but I heard its creation was slowed down by a challenging time finding somebody to head it up. Last month, the city named an interim director of the department, and she told me they're planning to have responders from this new department going out on 911 calls in this coming fall of this year.

There's also this community group that's growing called Cambridge H.E.A.R.T. And H.E.A.R.T. is an acronym for Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team. They've been getting training from members of the community to be responders for mental health calls, and they're trying to get a contract with the city to respond to mental health calls. I spoke with Stephanie Guirand of Cambridge H.E.A.R.T. She couldn't comment directly on the case of Sayed Faisal, the 20-year-old who was shot by Cambridge police last month because she said she wasn't familiar enough with the details. But she did say this.

Stephanie Guirand, pre-recorded: If there was a history of crises, then we would want to do regular check-ins with the family and create a care plan and develop trust with everyone in the family so that, in a moment of crisis, the person in crisis would be seeing familiar faces — which would automatically de-escalate the situation.

A man with a microphone speaks out to an off-camera crowd. Many stand to his left and right, carrying signs that read "Justice for Faisal!".
Tanvir Murad with the Bangladesh Association of New England speaks to demonstrators outside Cambridge City Hall on January 9.
Esteban Bustillos GBH News

LeMoult: So she said a key element of their plan is to work with people to prevent crises from happening to begin with. I also talked with Cambridge City Councilor Marc McGovern. He's actually a clinical social worker and he was the co-chair of that city task force that made the recommendations.

He said, even if they had the new department in place and if they had a partnership with Cambridge H.E.A.R.T., there almost certainly would have been a police response in the case of Sayed Faisal, because he had a knife. But he said, hopefully, there would have also been a mental health professional that responded.

Marc McGovern, pre-recorded: And then you hope that the mental health professional can take the lead and de-escalate the situation in such a way that the police aren't needed. But I don't know of any program that doesn't respond with the police if there is a weapon involved.

Rath: Craig, as you mentioned, it's not just Cambridge. City officials in Boston also have been trying to figure out how to change response to mental health calls, right?

LeMoult: Yeah, And in a lot of ways, they're further along with this. I spoke with Boston Police Superintendent Lanita Cullinane, who's the chief of the Bureau of Field Services, and she said the BPD has a mental health clinician in each precinct — or at least they're supposed to, they're currently looking to hire a few.

It's interesting, those clinicians come from outside the police department. They're actually from Boston Medical Center. The team is called BEST, which is another acronym. It stands for Boston Emergency Services Team. And they've been doing this for years. Here's Superintendent Cullinane.

Lanita Cullinane, pre-recorded: The clinicians, while they do respond to calls, they also follow up and offer additional services after they respond to calls — or even on calls that they haven't responded to, they will reach out to individuals to offer services.

LeMoult: She noted, in cases where a weapon is present, that clinicians do stay back. But she said, they're still involved. One other thing: the police cars that have these mental health clinicians are not reserved just for calls with a mental health component. They can get dispatched to other calls and potentially be unavailable if a call comes in. Superintendent Cullinane said they can pull from one of the other districts if necessary.

But in August of 2021, when Kim Janey was acting mayor of Boston, she announced a plan to expand the program by changing that.

Kim Janey, pre-recorded: The pilot initiative will dedicate core response cars to calls likely to have a mental health concern so that we are making these mental health teams available for the calls that would benefit from their presence the most.

LeMoult: That was a year and a half ago and that pilot never happened. Those cars still are not reserved just for mental health calls.

Rath: It's already the case that not just police can respond to mental health calls, right? Don't EMS sometimes show up a lot of the time when, say, there's a 911 call about someone having a mental health emergency?

LeMoult: That's right. In fact, unless there's a criminal action involved, mental health 911 calls in Boston go to EMS. And Boston EMS is also piloting some new approaches to these kind of calls.

First of all, there's a pilot underway now where someone who calls 911 experiencing a mental health issue could have the opportunity to be connected by phone to a mental health clinician from that so-called BEST team from Boston Medical Center. I spoke with Dr. Sophia Dyer, who's the medical director for Boston EMS.

Sophia Dyer, pre-recorded: And then they work with the mental health clinician that they're speaking to about what the best next step is. And sometimes that next step is, they do need an ambulance and do need to go to the emergency department. Sometimes that step is other resources, other follow-up.

LeMoult: As I said, that's just a pilot, and it's not available all day right now — those clinicians are currently available for about 8 hours a day.

But Dyer told me about another pilot that Boston EMS plans to launch in the late spring of this year that would pair Boston EMTs with those mental health clinicians when they go out and respond to mental health calls. That's one of the things that Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced a year and a half ago. It's actually getting started in this spring with two response vehicles.

Rath: It sounds them like co-response programs for mental health calls are starting to gain some traction.

LeMoult: Yeah, you know, I spoke more broadly about these kinds of programs with Melissa Morabito. She's an associate professor at UMass Lowell School of Criminology and Justice Studies, and she studies these kind of programs. And she said Massachusetts has been at the forefront of the co-response movement.

She said it was significant the Boston PD had made this part of their operating budget. It initially just been grant funded. You know, there's a program in Framingham that our GBH colleague Marilyn Schairer did a story about last year, and Morabito said Lowell is just starting a program.

And she pointed out, as we've been talking about here, that there are a lot of different kinds of alternatives to just sending police to respond to a mental health call.

Melissa Morabito, pre-recorded: I think that there's lots of places to kind of chip away at the margins and reduce the police footprint, but I don't think it's a quick decision. It's a slow process, and I think that there are lots of different alternative responses. I don't know that you can have one alternative response that's going to do all the things.

LeMoult: And she really emphasized there needs to be more focus on increasing access to mental health care in the state so it doesn't get to a point of crisis. And, you know, Massachusetts is taking steps in that direction. I mean, just yesterday, you and I talked about the new 25 community behavioral health centers that opened around the state, although those are mostly just available now for people on the state's Medicaid system.

So certainly it could be argued the state is making some progress in this regard, but there's still clearly a ways to go.

Correction: Due to an editing error, Lanita Cullinane’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.