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Norwich - When people at Reliance House mention that Tim Hesney was a cop, he tells them, "Past tense. That's over."
Hesney, 53, hung up his sergeant's uniform in 2007, when he retired after 25 years with the New London Police Department. Now he wears shorts and boat shoes to work and helps find housing and other services for people with mental health, addiction and developmental issues.
"Does it get any better than this?" the white-haired and mustachioed Hesney said one morning last week during an interview at Reliance House's Cliff Street office. He was working that morning with Stanley E.D. Brown, a 22-year-old who had been homeless but is now living in his own apartment and plans to start college in the fall.
Hesney has left police work for good but took something with him that enabled him to find a rewarding new career in the social work field. In 2000, at the urging of then police Capt. Kenneth W. Edwards Jr., he attended training and became the first field supervisor for the first Crisis Intervention Team in the Northeast. The CIT program, as it is called, is a collaborative program between law enforcement and mental health care providers and people with mental illness and their families. CIT-trained police officers respond to crisis calls, work with providers and use various strategies to achieve the best outcome.
Edwards said Hesney, who remains a close friend, was well-respected in the police department but known to be "a little crusty." Edwards felt that if Hesney would "buy in" to CIT, the rest of the agency would follow.
"Sgt. Hesney didn't only buy in, he became a CIT champion," Edwards, who is retired from the police department but remains involved with the CIT community, wrote in a recent newsletter. "He became known for outside-the-box solutions and strong citizen advocacy."
By the time Hesney retired, he was well known by mental health providers, advocates and consumers, Edwards said. Hesney spent the first few years after his retirement working with the boys' lacrosse program in Waterford. Then his CIT training opened a door for him at Reliance House, where Hesney has been working since January. Few police officers get the opportunity to work in social services, Edwards said, because there is a perception that officers lack the skills that are necessary to succeed.
"Once he had the interview, his passion for community service got him the job," Edwards said.
In the early days of his law enforcement career, the police had "a stunning lack of knowledge about mental issues" compared to today, Hesney said. He remembers transporting people who had been committed by the court system to the Norwich State Hospital. He and his caseworkers called those people "Route 12 cases," a reference to the location of the institution for the mentally ill that closed in 1996. There was little conversation between the police officer in the front seat and the person in the back.
Hesney remembers helping to put people in straightjackets and throwing the hard steel bolt to lock people into what was called "Room 6" in the mental health unit at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital. More than once, he walked in on people trying to hang themselves in the police department lockup.
"Before, it was arresting people with mental illness and putting them in cells," Hesney said. Those who commit serious crimes still get locked up, but the CIT training taught him it wasn't always necessary.
The first test of his CIT training came when officers were called to perform a well-being check on a man who was possibly suicidal. Younger officers were responding and Hesney decided to go. The call started off OK, but the man became increasingly agitated.
"I said, 'Let's start our strategies,'" Hesney remembered. But telling the man they were there to help didn't work.
"He swung a roundhouse at me," Hesney said. "Luckily, I ducked." A young officer handcuffed the man and told him he was under arrest, but Hesney interjected, telling the man, "We're going to bring you to the hospital, sir. You're having a bad day."
The man got help, Hesney said, and the officer wrote a two-paragraph incident report rather than an arrest report.
He said his workday at Reliance House "zooms by like a rocket" and he gets the satisfaction of helping people put roofs over their heads and acquire skills they need to prosper in life.
Brown, the 22-year-old who recently moved into his own apartment, had been through a difficult time in his personal life and had trouble trusting anyone.
"I was really tight about opening up, but once I got to know him, I opened up," Brown said of Hesney. Finding appropriate housing was not easy, and Brown felt like giving up at times. Hesney told him to be patient, Brown said. And when an opportunity came up, Hesney, who said he coaches people to become "self-advocates," showed him how to seize the moment.
"We found the place and called the landlord and he said, 'I'm here now,'" Hesney said. "I said, 'Let's go.'" Reliance House and other providers are still helping Brown, but he and Hesney both look forward to the day when Brown will tell them all, "You're fired."
Dave Burnett, chief executive officer at Reliance House, said he's fascinated by Hesney's background.
"It's remarkable to me the bright positive spirit he brings to working with homeless people," Burnett said in a phone interview. "It's remarkable to me that a guy who had 25 years as a cop came out of that process with the bright outlook he has with the people we serve."
Burnett said the Crisis Intervention Training that helped propel Hesney into a second career has been a godsend to the "psychiatrically handicapped" community. Police learn how to use eye contact and to express concern rather than exercise control, he said, all of which help de-escalate potentially volatile encounters.
Hesney, though, seems to have transcended the training.
"The training helped, but Tim's got something else going that's really special," Burnett said.