Boston Police’s Harm Reduction: A Cooperative Effort in Downtown Crossing

When Captain Robert Ciccolo Jr. took over as the District Commander of A-1 and A-15 one of the major issues he inherited was the growing population of homeless and at-risk residents of the Downtown Crossing and Boston Common areas. The District faced an increase in incidents involving indigent persons who were living on the streets in the area and a pattern began to emerge as the issue was examined closer.

The same names kept coming up, over and over again these people were having contact with Officers whether it be as a witness, victim or perpetrator. This was where the Boston Police District A1 & A15 High Contact Meetings originated. The belief was that persons with multiple police contacts in a short period of time, usually less than a year, were likely in need of services, and that those services were in fact available but barriers to entry needed to be overcome.

With this philosophy, Captain Ciccolo brought together a team of experts who complied a list of the top 30 individuals with high police contact in the past 12 months within the geographical area of Downtown Crossing. These meetings consist of the A-1 & A-15 Command Staff and District Detectives, BES Team Personnel, BPD Street Outreach, MaryAnn Ponti who is the Director of Outreach from St. Anthony’s Shrine, and a representative from the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. Each of these people bring their own professional knowledge, expertise, and sometimes personal history with these individuals to the table.

The group meets periodically to discuss ways in which to reduce the amount of police contact, and also increase the utilization of services. These meetings cover a verity of topics however a heavy focus is held in respect of the persons on the list’s legal and ethical confidentiality needs with only pertinent and non-privileged information being shared. The real emphasis is on harm reduction and reducing barriers to entry to services, not punitive or legal action. A significant portion of the persons discussed are homeless, marginally housed and/ or mentally ill, many suffer from substance use disorders making them an extremely vulnerable segment of the population.

As these service providers and district police personnel have contact with people on the list, they are able to document and share information with the team and help tailor their support efforts such as with applicants for services. In the event the police contacts result in criminal charges, the group is able to assist the District Attorney’s Office in making recommendations in conjunction with court clinicians, including referrals to mental health court, or support recommendations for terms of probation that are non-punitive and focused on assisting those reluctant to accept services.

We had the pleasure of going out with “Captain Bob” as he’s referred to by most of area’s residents, as well as MaryAnn Ponti of Saint Anthony’s Shrine and a BES Team Social Worker on one of their outreach walks through the area. During these walks, they run into many of the subjects who are considered high risk and on their list. A common thread soon became apparent, a lack of services was not the issue, the main thing that seemed to prevent these people were themselves. With such a heavy influence of mental health issues and substance abuse, often times these people don’t want help, and it can become extremely repetitive, however that’s not stopping the team.

They continue to try and work with the population, with the hope that eventually, one day, their offers for help will be accepted. And sometimes they are, we met a number of people on our walk that had started to take steps to improving their situation, with steps as simple as going to a shelter sometimes or some as significant as getting their own housing it became clear that this approach was making a difference.

With the drug and homeless epidemic growing by the day, large scale solutions are a hotly debated topic in Boston. With advocates on both sides of the extreme, a solution doesn’t seem close. Until we find this ultimate fix, this unique approach seems to work well. Taking on the problem one individual at a time, while tedious it has shown to work. Hopefully with the success of Captain Ciccolo and his District, other areas will follow suit and start tackling this problem in other hotspots.