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How Crisis Intervention Training for Cambridge Police is Making a Difference & A Story About Nelson

Monday, September 12, 2022

As a department, the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) makes significant investments in training in order to best prepare officers for the various situations they may encounter in the field. Experience gained from programs like Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, along with compassion and patience exhibited by responding officers, can play a critical role in a safe outcome for all.

The CIT training program is an innovative community partnership between law enforcement, mental health professionals, addiction specialists, individuals impacted by Behavioral Health (mental illness, developmental disabilities, and addiction), and their advocates.

Based off of a community policing program in Memphis, TN, CIT was designed with the goal that everyone will work together to identify appropriate resources for those in crisis. Another driving force of the CIT program is to redirect individuals with mental illness away from the criminal justice system and into the health care system whenever appropriate. Statistics indicate that in communities where a vigorous CIT program is in practice, serious and fatal incidents decrease.

Officers who complete CIT training learn to understand common signs and symptoms of developmental disorders and mental illness, and are equipped with the knowledge and skills to guide best practice responses to individuals with those symptoms.

This is a story about Nelson.

After gravely struggling and nearly taking his own life earlier this year, today, Nelson is making significant progress. CPD is proud of Nelson’s growth and – with his permission – is sharing some of his admirable journey.

It was an afternoon in August 2020 and Nelson was standing at the edge of a roof on the seven-floor Green Street building. Following a conflict at the CASPAR Emergency Services Center, one of the only shelters in Massachusetts that accepts people who are using drugs and/or alcohol and are homeless, Nelson was very upset and threatened to take his own life. Officers spent nearly an hour attempting to build rapport and earn his trust to help him safely off the ledge. One of the responding officers – Christine Gilbertson – was familiar with Nelson due to her work in Central Square. She knew Nelson suffered from schizophrenia, alcohol abuse, and anger issues. Over the next hour, Nelson became more comfortable with Officer Gilbertson and the responding officers, resolved the conflict at the shelter, and ultimately stepped away from the ledge.

At that time, Nelson was not only experiencing homelessness. He was also struggling to cope with severe mental health symptoms that negatively impacted his interpersonal relationships, self-care, and ability to function safely in the community. He was contending with some serious chronic medical issues and he did not have any support or services in place. After growing up in a foster home and going to school in Arlington, Nelson landed in Boston where he got involved in gangs, alcohol abuse, witnessed family members get killed, broke up with his longtime girlfriend, and bounced in and out of several shelters and service providers. He wasn’t able to find long-term stability, had difficulty controlling his drinking, and called 911 so frequently to the point where he could have faced criminal charges for abusing the system. In May 2020, he walked across the bridge around midnight seeking shelter and has been in Cambridge ever since.

“Cambridge took me in,” Nelson said. “The only reason I came to Cambridge was for shelter. It was midnight and the Warming Center accepted me.” Although he found a place to sleep, Nelson continued to struggle. Over the next two years, Nelson was named in more than 50 reports with Cambridge Police – either as an alleged victim, suspect, involved person, or witness.

In addition to Officer Gilbertson, Nelson began to build a relationship and trust with Community Outreach Officer Mike Padua. Officer Padua would frequently see Nelson walking around Cambridge and go out of his way to say hello and check on him, and even gave Nelson his cell phone number. Nelson also connected with Officer Gutoski, Sergeant Lowe, and Elana Klein, a Licensed Social Worker at the Cambridge Police. If it wasn’t for Officers Gilbertson, Padua, Gutoski, Sgt. Lowe, or Elana, Nelson admits, “I probably would be in jail (right now).”

In the midst of these challenges, Nelson displayed good insight into his struggles with mental illness, a traumatic brain injury, learning disabilities, and alcohol use. He asked for help and expressed a strong desire to work with the police and providers, particularly after he formed strong, trusting, and caring relationships with so many at CPD.

Over time, Nelson was able to connect with various support services, including an outreach worker from the Eliot PATH program in September 2020, a Department of Mental Health case manager in June 2021, and then the Vinfen team in September 2021. He also began working with a psychiatrist in April 2021, a primary care provider in May 2021, a housing navigator in May 2021, and a Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) member in September 2021.

Nelson welcomed and took great advantage of all the support he was offered, even as, through no fault of his own, he experienced numerous changes in his care providers, including seven case managers, two psychiatrists, two housing navigators, and countless VNAs. In addition, he lived in five different shelters over the course of approximately two years before he was finally able to obtain a single room occupancy at the Cambridge YMCA in November 2021.

Despite the long-term instability in Nelson’s living situation, frequent changes in his care team, and his chronic struggles with his mental and physical health, he has worked very hard to achieve extremely impressive improvements in his functioning and wellbeing. Nelson now meets with his primary care physician and psychiatrist regularly, takes medication, significantly reduced his alcohol consumption, has a stable living situation, and works closely with his Vinfen case management team.

As of today, he has nearly resolved all of his past criminal cases and is doing extremely well in Cambridge’s Mental Health Court, which is designed to support residents in the community who have mental health issues and criminal complaints with services, rather than disciplining through the criminal justice system. Given the vast amount of changes in service providers he has had to deal with, the Cambridge Police Department has been one of the most consistent forms of support in his life during this time.

The next goal for Nelson is to move into a Vinfen group home, where he will be able to receive an even higher level of support.

According to CPD Social Worker Klein, “Nelson continues to have excellent insight into his mental health challenges, and he continues to embrace every form of support he is offered. Rarely have I seen a client work so hard, overcome so many barriers, and achieve such a profound improvement in his overall functioning.”

“A lot of people would get help if they knew what I know now,” said Nelson.

Nelson has found inspiration in the help he has received here in Cambridge and is trying to help others he encounters who also may be in need. “I don’t want to leave Cambridge,” Nelson said. “I have a family here.”

“Whenever you fall, I’ll be here to pick you up.
You are like family now.”

Officer Mike Padua said to Nelson

View Video of Nelson and Officer Padua



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