As important as the daily fight against crime is in any city, preventing as much youth as possible from turning to a criminal lifestyle is critical to future crime reduction.

The New Bedford Police Department formally announced a new position on Tuesday that aims to help city youth with mental health issues. The Department hired NorthStar Learning Centers' licensed clinical social worker and specially trained mental health clinician Melissa Costa.

The position is one of the fewest in the state, made possible by a $10,000 grant provided by the Island Foundation located in Marion. Costa will initiate mental health holds if necessary, make referrals and provide follow up services as part of the Diversion Assistance Program initiated by the grant.

The program is designed for a target population of city youth ranging from 11-24 years old. NorthStar's Director of Clinical Research Jimmy Owens explained that the chosen age range is when any mental health issues start to become more noticeable and “prevalent.”

“We're looking at that population as being a target population because of what they present at that particular age,” said Owens. “The 11-year-olds, the first time you start noticing any mental health issues and challenges that they have is usually when they make that entry into middle school. That's when you start seeing those issues becoming a bit more prevalent.”

Costa and the officers will be utilizing what they call the “co-responding model”, which will pair Costa with different officers throughout the city on ride-alongs. Costa will also be consistently on call for the department, giving her the ability to respond to a scene even when she's not working a scheduled shift.

“This helps to build a mutually respectful relationship with me and the officers. The officers need to be able to trust me and I need to be able to trust them,” Costa said. “I describe it to the officers as I'm a tool on their belt. Just as they have their guns, handcuffs, taser or whatever, I'm a tool for them. So if they feel unsure about something they'll call me or I'll already be out there responding on call.”

The goal of the program is to divert at-risk city youth from criminal activity and away from a life in and out of jail, something that Police Chief Joseph Cordeiro says will give a “bigger bang for our buck” in the fight against crime in New Bedford.

“Putting kids in the system or in jail all the time just isn't the answer. There are some individuals who need to be in jail because they're so violent and create such a safety issue for us,” explained Cordeiro. “I think we get a bigger bang for our buck if we invest in these kids and get them the assistance that they need.”

According to New Bedford Police, nearly 70-percent of youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system have at least one diagnosable mental health disorder, and almost a quarter have serious emotional issues.

“I look forward to serving the individuals in the community and assisting the officers by providing an alternative to arrest,” Costa said. “The youth will be receiving the appropriate and needed treatment. We both want to help people and co-responding allows us to bring our perspective strengths and skills in each intervention.”

Melissa Costa speaks during a press conference announcing her hiring. Tim Dunn/TSM