Is there a clean line between when a a call comes in for a behavioral health crisis, or when a situation in which police are/should be dispatched?
This is a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ question, depending on the circumstances.
The City of Rochester Police Department has made national news three times over the past year in cases where police actions have been deemed unsuitable for the conditions, yet rules were allegedly followed. In each case the bad publicity, civilian complaints, protests and potential lawsuits have all led to a negative picture for police.
On Saturday (3/20) at 7:20 a.m. the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call of a psychological disorder at the Woodland Commons Apartment Complex on Route 31 in the Town of Macedon.
Upon arrival, officers found the 43 year old man barricaded in his apartment in an apparent intoxicated and agitated state threatening to do harm to himself and officers.
Due to previous contacts with the subject, additional help was requested to contain the subject and protect the large number of residents that were unable to leave the facility.
After negotiating for 8 hours, the man was taken into custody, peacefully and taken to Rochester Strong Hospital for evaluation and treatment of self inflicted injuries.
The difference between a situation out of control in the City of Rochester, or with the response in Wayne County, depends on preparation, anticipation and training for all those who respond.
The Wayne County Mental Health Department, under Director James (Jim) Haitz, launched an ambitious ‘Intervention Team’ in September of 2018, with trained professionals and mobile units on the ready for mental health responses.
Under a pilot program the Mental Health Department has also added Ipads for some sheriff’s officers allowing for on scene assessments with on duty mental health technicians, making it possible to discern situations. This is when an officer, instead of beginning an arrest, or legal matter to be turned over to the ‘Open Access’ health officials.
It is then determined whether a mental health person is dispatched to the scene, brought to the ‘Open Access’ facility, or an appointment should be made for the person under distress.
According to Chief Deputy Rob Milby, Sheriff Barry Virts saw the handwriting on the wall as police reform and questions began arising over when to divert calls to mental health.
“Sheriff Virts decided to be ahead of the curve and began progressive training for all officers,” said Milby.
Classes in anti-bias, situation de-escalation, mental health overview, diversity training were all part of professional standards, accreditation for all officers. This is in addition to the 1000 hours of training before an officer hits the road.
During the covid crisis, the ‘Open Access’ and ‘Mobile Team’ response was cut back to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week. With more hires in the near future Haitz hopes to move to a 24 hour/seven days a week availability.
So, why are some city and municipalities not yet onboard with similar programs?
“We don’t like to toot our own horn” said Haitz. But his agency saw what was coming and decided to be more progressive. He added that through the existing programs and that of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office, and local municipal police agencies, bad and sensational outcomes are avoided.
Hiring the right staff, a mix of para professionals and peer staff that understand mental situations is paramount.
911 staff are being trained to distinguish between police involvement, or directing calls for mental health evaluation.
Did the man have a gun as he professed early on? What weapons did he actually have. A few large knives were thrown out a window during the wind down.
A Saturday’s situation in Macedon, Jim Haitz was contacted by police at home and he responded in person, supplying ‘intel’ on the barricaded man and adding to the direct line communications. Productive negotiations with the man ended the standoff. He came out, was handcuffed and taken to Strong Memorial Hospital by ambulance for a myriad of possible solutions, including self inflicted injuries.
“It was a perfect outcome,” proclaimed Haitz. “Police were calm and there was no panic,” he added.
Other municipalities across the nation are, or have instituted similar guidelines for behavioral crisis situations. The Wayne County Police/Mental Health match up was begun with a $4 million dollar grants, along with County participation and some insurance billing when available.
What about the danger of sending mental health officials into a situation that may escalate?
Haitz indicated that is where the connection with police agencies is vital at determining the right agencies and people. He added that in the future, for extra protection, mental health responders may need bullet proof vests for added security.