Twenty years ago if someone had told Justin Verette that he would be riding around in a squad car one day, he probably would have thought it was for his antics and not his profession.
The Turlock High graduate and current Vermont resident is part of a pilot program that is taking a novel approach to how the local law enforcement — the Burlington Police Department — approaches those with mental illness and substance abuse issues in the community.
The program began in earnest five years ago after the Burlington Police Chief discovered more than 85 percent of the department’s calls were under the mental health and substance abuse umbrella. In the wake of a fatal shooting of a mentally ill man by a law enforcement officer, the police department assigned Verette, who was already working with the town’s outreach center, to the station and started dispatching him to calls involving mental health issues.
Verette doesn’t wear a uniform or carry a weapon, in fact he is only armed with a radio. But as a clinical interventionist, Verette is often the first responder when someone is in distress because of their mental illness.
“I’m on call a lot and go anywhere I am needed,” Verette said. “Many of these people have had bad interactions with social workers and it has left a bad taste in their mouth. The same with law enforcement. I’m trying to mend people’s trust and prevent any bad interactions with the officers.”
A good portion of his time is spent performing welfare checks on individuals and meeting those who routinely call for service just out of loneliness. If the situation is verging on violence, Verette may be accompanied by an officer, but most time he prefers to fly solo.
Verette, with his long goatee and tattoos running up his arms, believes he is uniquely capable of deescalating the potentially volatile situations, because like many of the individuals he speaks with, he also felt disenfranchised by society at one time.
Verette, born and raised in Turlock, said he started “making a lot of bad choices” as he entered adulthood. These choices left the promising student adrift and homeless with no prospects on his horizon. Then he got an invitation to move out East.
“I was 23 and my sister was living in New York. I settled in Vermont, but when the first winter came I said ‘these people are crazy’ and I moved back,” Verette said. “I was told to give it one more try, so I came back. I was working at a restaurant when I passed by this youth drop in center, and I had this idea to start volunteering.
“When I was their age I didn’t have someone to relate to,” Verette recalled. “I wanted to be that person for someone else.”
The volunteer work proved to be so rewarding that Verette abandoned his culinary ambitions and took a full-time position with the center.
“I was hooked. I love being able to help people when needed,” Verette said.
Which explains why when the pilot program with the police department was pitched, Verette was first in line to serve.
“I never would have thought that I would be working with the police one day,” Verette said. “I was always the kid that gave the teachers a challenge and I sat in detention a lot because of it.”
Verette does remember at least one of his teachers finding the route to spark his inspiration and get him motivated — his Turlock High School government teacher Alice Pollard.
“She knew I had a lot of energy and how to keep me focused,” Verette said.
Pollard, now a member of the Stanislaus County Board of Education, isn’t surprised at all that Verette would find his calling in helping others.
“The students had a requirement to complete 10 hours of community service,” Pollard said. “I remember that he enjoyed it so much he continued to volunteer his time. He would go to nursing homes and play cards and checkers with them or just sit and visit. He has a very big heart.”