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Community Spotlight: The Front Line Initiative at Tewksbury Police Department

If you have not heard of The Front Line Initiative, you’re not alone many residents are unaware that we have this amazing resource in town, based at the Tewksbury Police Station on Main St., and that the TPD is an innovation leader.

The group works with local police departments to divert citizens in crisis from the emergency room and criminal custody. That saves the communities they serve significant money: Over $3.2 million in unnecessary ER visits and over $1.1 million in criminal custody charges since 2018.

The Carnation asked Matthew Page-Shelton, regional director of The Front Line Initiative, to tell residents about the group, its mission and how to get involved. 

Tewksbury Carnation: Please tell us about The Front Line Initiative: How it was formed, which agencies take part and your goals.

Matthew Page-Shelton: The Front Line Initiative is a community behavioral health services program that serves as the behavioral health partner for five local law enforcement departments. The program was formed in 2011 as a response to the opiate crisis and began as an outreach pilot to offer treatment services. In 2016 mental health outreach was added; 2018 saw the addition of co-response with police officers; and in 2019 we expanded to include two full-time co-response clinicians, a recovery support clinician and an executive director. 

The Front Line Initiative’s mission is to provide free services to the communities we serve in four key areas: prevention, crisis response, recovery support and education/training. We work with Tewksbury, Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Tyngsborough. Some of our newer projects will have us working beyond the original regional group; we will work on a larger scale with Middlesex County as part of our Crisis Intervention Team Training and Technical Assistance Center (CIT-TTAC), which will provide training to officers, clinicians and community partners across the county.

TC: What are some challenges and successes in Tewksbury?

MPS: Tewksbury has served as the lead community for Front Line Initiative since its inception in 2011 and for this reason has always been ready and willing to be an innovator and leader in change. We have worked progressively with the Tewksbury Police Department to increase the use of co-response clinicians in mental health and substance use emergency calls. We have seen the rate of unnecessary hospitalizations and arrests decrease over the past several years as we provide more direct services to the community. 

We have continuously partnered with the Tewksbury Public Schools to offer access to free behavioral health services as well as access to educational resources, such as mental health first-aid, social-emotional skills and youth substance use prevention.

The Tewksbury Police Department was one of the first departments to be certified having completed the One Mind Campaign, which means that 100% of officers are trained in mental health first aid, and a minimum of 20% of officers are trained in Crisis Intervention Team training. 

Challenges we face are the pure volume of need. Additionally we struggle with public knowledge of the program’s work, and we continue to strive to be a more visible presence in the community.

TC: Tell us about yourself, how you came to be in this role.

MPS: My clinical training is in mental health counseling with specialties in holistic counseling practices, trauma and forensic psychology. My clinical work has been in emergency crisis response working in emergency rooms as well as the community, working with people in psychiatric emergencies helping them obtain services and care. 

Prior to my clinical work, I worked in program design/development as a program manager for a homelessness agency in Boston and created an economic mobility center with programming services for financial education and career development. I began as the co-response clinician and worked with then Chief Sheehan to develop and design the program expansion opportunities under the Bureau of Justice Assistance via a Department of Justice grant in 2019; these efforts lead to my promotion as the Regional Director and recently re-titling to Executive Director with expansion of our programming beyond a regional model.

TC: How did Covid affect your mission?

MPS: Covid has greatly affected our mission as we had to initially adapt to being remote during the early days of the pandemic, and all clinical programming switched to remote. We had to adapt to the use of tele-therapy and video conferencing with officers on scene. 

Since late 2020, early 2021 we have seen a dramatic rise in need and lack of access to services with long wait times. We were fortunate that our organic growth in staffing took place parallel to increased needs. We have modified our offerings to include remote and in-person services as well as access to programming in relation to social determinants of health, such as access to housing, food, transportation. 

TC: Is there a way for residents and/or local groups to get involved in The Front Line Initiative?

MPS: Over the coming months we will be seeking community input for several of our grants, ranging from input from youth, parents and grandparents in relation to prevention education, to the community’s input on the use of a comfort dog in responding to mental health crisis calls; these are great opportunities for the community to have a voice in the work being done to support them and their neighbors. 

We also from time to time may run drives to collect food, clothing or basic need items for those we serve — this is another great way to get involved. 

Lastly, community members are always invited to reach out to our team or stop by our office in the lobby of the police department to talk about ideas they may have or opportunities for engagement. We are here to work for and with the community and invite the engagement. 

TC: What didn’t we ask that you would like to share with the community?

MPS: I would add that we have an amazing FREE resource online that provides access to thousands of resources on a wide array of topics. All are reviewed by a panel of professionals. 

Also, please spread the word that we are here and available 24/7/365 as a free community resource that does not require police involvement. 

Provider of hyperlocal news, insights and events from Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Community-driven journalism by Tewksbury, for Tewksbury.


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