Law enforcement personnel are often called upon to deal with people in acute mental health crises, a situation that can sometimes require a more subtle approach than typical policing.
Both Amsterdam Police officers and Montgomery County Sheriff's Office personnel will receive additional training in how to respond to those mental health crises, thanks to $45,000 in grant funding from New York state's Crisis Intervention Team program.
For one week in August, the program will train up to 30 individuals, at a state-reimbursed cost of $1,500 each, to recognize the signs of a mental health crisis and how to effectively direct people to the mental health resources in the county.
Montgomery County Public and Mental Health Director Sara Boerenko said State Sen. George Amedore Jr., R-Rotterdam, was instrumental in helping Montgomery County access funding from the program. Boerenko said Montgomery County has created a local mental health crisis team comprised of herself, Amsterdam Police Chief Gregory Culick, Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith, St. Mary’s Hospital President and CEO Vic Giulianelli and St. Mary's Vice President for Behavioral Health Duane Miller.
"We've created a team that will take this project and really implement it in a concise manner throughout the county, to make sure that those who are experiencing a mental health or substance abuse crisis are connected immediately to the services that they need," she said.
The training will be administered by the Institute for Police, Mental Health & Community Collaboration and led by its director Don Kamin.
Kamin, and one of the Institute's consultants, Mark Giuliano, gave a presentation to Montgomery County officials Wednesday, explaining how the program will work.
Kamin said this is the fifth year the Crisis Intervention Team program has been in existence, and his company has helped implement it in about 30 counties. He said this year the counties that received funding were Montgomery, Yates, Steuben, Cayuga and Suffolk, each receiving reimbursement for the training of 30 law enforcement personnel.
Kamin said another aspect of the program is the creation of a System Map that will create an organized inventory of all of the different mental health assistance programs available in the county, how they work and interact and how to access them. He said his company has helped create system maps for 21 counties.
Giuliano said he will be involved in the training program, which will help road patrol officers become more sensitized to the possibility that they are dealing with a mental health crisis.
"A lot of law enforcement response is predicated on intimidation. Lots of lights, lots of noise, things move very quickly and hopefully police go home safely at the end of the day. That works with rational bad-guys, if there is such a thing as a rational bad guy. What we also know is that if you're living in a state of perpetual fear, intimidation just makes things worse, which is unsafe for everyone, officers are often injured," he said. "We're not suggesting officers take any tool off their tool belt, every tool they have is there for a reason, but when they can identify somebody who might be in a state of emotional crisis, we want them to default to communication to the best of their ability, not ever compromising their safety."
Montgomery County Sheriff Jeff Smith said he intends to select road patrol deputies, as well as corrections officers and dispatch personnel to receive training from the Crisis Intervention Team program.
"My hope is that we'll be able to better train officers so that when they are handling a crisis situation in the field that they'll be able direct them to get the services that are available. Right now, it's really a communications and an educational problem where not everybody is 100 percent sure of what's available to them, which goes for the public also," he said. "The dispatch aspect of this is also a big part of it for me, because those people are on the front lines when the phone rings and somebody is in crisis. So, educating them in better ways to handle the crisis and how to get people to the services they need... We don't want suicides. We don't want homicide-suicides, or injuries, so the ultimate goal is to reduce all of that."
Kamin said one example of enhanced mental health training for a dispatch officer might be helping them realize that some people call 911 because they need someone to talk to.
"If somebody calls up in a state of panic and needs that law enforcement help because they're going to jump, we want to give the dispatcher the confidence of how to talk in that situation, and it's not always what comes naturally to most of us, which is saying 'oh, it's not that bad', because that minimizes people's concerns, which isn't effective," he said. "We teach listening. We teach about being empathic. We teach them to say, 'wow, that's really overwhelming, you've got so much going on.' The difference is that in that moment, the person feels like somebody understands them. And that connection, that rapport, in that moment can be a tremendous change for the person, and keep them on the line until police can get there."