City police and those from surrounding agencies are making a push to better respond to incidents involving the mentally ill.
Members of eight departments this week attended a special week-long training session with the goal of creating response teams that will help de-escalate situations involving the mentally ill.
The Schenectady Police Department sent 13 members to the sessions, including 10 officers, two sergeants and a lieutenant. Two other sergeants underwent the training previously.
“The idea is to be able to better assess the situation with this enhanced training,” Schenectady Police Chief Brian Kilcullen said, “and reduce the use of force through the skills they’ve acquired through this training.”
The Schenectady officers attending the training work on all three shifts, Kilcullen said. The plan is to have those officers dispatched to calls involving people who are emotionally disturbed. Team members will then meet regularly to discuss recent responses and how they can be improved, Kilcullen said.
The chief also sees some form of the training being extended to the rest of the department. For now, training is recommended for 20 percent of patrol officers in a department. Schenectady is nearing that figure.
The team will formally begin work soon, after some new policies are in place, Kilcullen said. In the meantime, dispatchers will be made aware of the list of officers on the team and try to dispatch accordingly.
The training was funded through a state grant and led by retired Rochester police Sgt. Eric Weaver, a consultant with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services. In addition to the general topic of the mentally ill, the course also covered multiple aspects of mental health in general, including schizophrenia and personality disorders, as well as hospital procedures, mental health law, issues by age, those who are suicidal and issues in veterans.
Weaver said the school helps officers understand issues facing those they serve.
The assessment can include approaching the individual in a different way, with an eye toward ending a situation peacefully.
“We teach officers how to identify those concerns and identify individuals who might be struggling with that,” Weaver said.
Attending the class were members of the city police department; Schenectady County sheriff’s and probation departments; state police; Niskayuna, Glenville and Rotterdam police departments; and the Albany County Probation Department. The class was held at Schenectady County Community College, but other courses are offered around the state, Weaver said.
Roy Neville, president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, helped hand out certificates of completion to the officers at the close of Friday’s session. He told those gathered that the extra training can make a difference. He gave an example of a situation where a parent calls police because their mentally ill child is being destructive in the home. The training can help de-escalate that, he said.
He also referenced cases that have gone the opposite way and turned into headlines.
“We want to avoid that, and that’s what this is about,” Neville said.
The class also helps establish a better association between law enforcement and mental health professionals.
“We don’t want people in jail and prison, and we don’t want them in hospital beds either,” Neville said. “We want them in the community, where they survive and take care of themselves.”