How should the police handle mental health calls? Buffalo’s next mayor will help decide | Crime News

Mayoral candidate India Walton said police should not be the first to respond to mental health-related calls.

In many cases, in Buffalo and many other communities, this is already not the case.

At the same time, mental health professionals want or sometimes need the police to show up.

The debate over the appropriate role the police should play in the mental health response is often oversimplified, but most agree that police involvement should be limited, said Elizabeth L. Mauro, CEO of Endeavor Health Services, a local nonprofit organization that provides mental and behavioral health services, including alongside municipal police.

“When we talk about the role of law enforcement, in a very simplified form, it is that they should be used when needed and not otherwise,” said Mauro.

“And actually everyone agrees,” she said. “If you take all the layers off, everyone’s actually okay with that.”






Buffalo Police Captain Amber Beyer, center, chats with Cait Connors, left, a mental health clinician with Endeavor Health Services, and Constable Rosie Sparacino at the Behavioral Health Team offices in police headquarters.


John Hickey / Buffalo News


Endeavor Health is partnering with the Buffalo Police Department for the service’s Behavioral Health Team, a unit created a year ago that pairs specially trained police officers with mental health clinicians. Grants received by Endeavor reward the team’s work.

Police involved when safety is an issue

Dealing with people who have mental health problems can be a volatile situation for the police. And sometimes an incident involving someone with a mental health issue is initially reported as another type of police call, so officers don’t always know what they’re walking in, Buffalo Police Captain Amber said. Beyer, who heads the Behavioral Health Team.

“It is obvious that the police are needed for some of these calls,” Beyer said.

“Police presence is essential for everyone involved, for security reasons,” Beyer said. “And a lot of the mental health professionals who do the fieldwork don’t want to be there without the police in many cases. They feel more comfortable where they are playing the lead, but the police are there. just in case .”






bison police behavioral health team 2

Buffalo Police Officer David Wojtasik, a member of the department’s behavioral health team, examines a screen showing active police calls in the city to determine if the team may be needed.


Jean Hickey



Clinicians at mental health care providers regularly call the police for help with calls with potential safety concerns, Beyer said.

When someone calls 911, a Central Police Service Call Attendant determines the resources needed and can dispatch police, firefighters and / or an ambulance.

If there are no security concerns, sometimes a dispatcher – who has training in crisis intervention – will send an ambulance. Sometimes situations can be reported to the police as domestic disputes that end up being related to mental health.

“They’ll never have enough training to see through a phone, however, and know what’s really going on on stage,” Beyer said.

Police shooting in 2020 raises attention

After a Buffalo police officer shot dead a homeless man who was believed to have a mental health crisis last year, heightened surveillance and public protests followed.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on September 12, 2020, near Genesee and Ash Streets, an officer shot Willie Henley twice, shooting him once in the abdomen, after Henley allegedly threw a metal baseball bat at the partner officer and hit her on the upper arm. Officers deployed pepper spray, but it failed to subdue Henley, police said.

None of the officers at the scene where Henley was shot had a Taser. Plans to equip more city officers with less lethal weapons have been delayed for years. Plans were put on hold again last fall when the Brown administration said funds to purchase the equipment were not available.

Brown and the Common Council included funding for the Tasers in this year’s city budget.

Henley, who was hospitalized after the shooting, has been charged with assault. In March, he was declared incompetent to prosecute the criminal case against him.

Walton, who at that time had not yet declared his intention to run for mayor, came to the scene of the shooting that day.

Later, at a rally of around 200 people supporting Henley, Walton said Henley had reason to be afraid when meeting with police.

“I’m already scared and can’t see,” she said, describing Henley’s plight after being pepper sprayed. “What the hell did you expect him to do?”

Protesters called on the mayor and law enforcement officials to step down, citing the shooting as another example of people of color being subjected to police violence.

Two days after Henley was shot, Mayor Byron Brown announced that the department’s new Behavioral Health team would begin functioning the following month.

Earlier in her campaign, Walton said she wanted the police to no longer play a role in “most mental health calls.”

In an interview with the Buffalo News Editorial Board in September, she said police officers were charged “with doing jobs they are not hired for,” including educating the homeless and responding to mental health.

Police should have the time and space to do their jobs, while agencies designed to specifically address the needs of the homeless or those with mental health issues also deserve additional funding, Walton said.

“I want to release the police to do police work,” she said.

The winner of the June Democratic primary also said she would cut police spending in certain areas and use it to “fully fund mental health services”, improve awareness of the homeless, invest in diversion, as well as to increase the base salary of officers.

Walton said his administration would create a “corps of mental health first responders” that would send out mobile crisis teams including therapists and social workers.

Matching agents, clinicians

A study of data from nine police departments across the country released in July found just over 1% of 911 calls relate to mental health issues.

In Buffalo, from October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021, the Behavioral Health team responded to 1,110 of the department’s 6,742 calls related to mental health. The team also performed about 1,400 follow-ups, according to the department.

Of the approximately 2,500 one-on-one interactions the team had, one person was taken to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program at Erie County Medical Center 135 times, the department said.

Under state law, anyone who needs to be taken to hospital for a psychiatric assessment, who does not attend voluntarily, must be taken with the assistance of the police. Crisis Services is the nonprofit designated by Erie County to determine whether a person should be transported for further psychiatric assessment, CEO Jessica Pirro said. Police can also transport a person without an assessment by a mental health professional.

Crisis Services, which operates a 24-hour crisis hotline, has a mobile outreach operation for people in need of mental health assistance, and in cases where there may be safety concerns, the police are required, Pirro said. Such “increased cases” are “not the norm,” she said.

Crisis Services has been providing mobile crisis response since 1980, Pirro said. About 60% of the agency’s mobile outreach calls have no police involvement, she said.

The Police Department’s Behavioral Health team consists of six officers and two lieutenants who work with three clinicians and an Endeavor program supervisor.

This is called a “co-responder model”, bringing together the two types of professionals. The model aims to reduce hospitalizations, make more efficient use of an agent’s time, and improve access to care and speed of reception, said Mauro, of Endeavor.

The team works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday. Agents across town can ask behavioral health team members to help with calls. Since the summer, around 140 ministry officials have received training in crisis intervention.

When the behavioral health team arrives at the scene, the clinician’s role is to assess, defuse and determine what a person, or “the client,” said Beyer, who has become the coordinator of the event. the department’s crisis intervention training in 2018.

The team, when possible, tries to avoid putting the client in the criminal justice system. City facilities provide services to those who do not need “acute stabilization” at the ECMC. These include walk-in clinics, clubs, and respite centers, which are akin to an emergency mental health care center.

But they don’t always have a choice.

“Sometimes the only way to protect that person from themselves is to put them in jail,” Beyer said, “because the mental health system is limited by what they can get someone to do.”

“And if someone refuses to engage in treatment, if someone refuses to seek help and they behave in a criminal manner and put themselves and the community in dangerous situations, then at the end of the day. of account, we have to look at that option, “she said.

Still, there are calls that could be handled by different agencies and not the police, Beyer said.

After Brown announced the formation of the Behavioral Health Team, a group of social workers, mental health professionals and community members denounced the plan outside City Hall.

In an opinion piece published in The Buffalo News in November 2020, four counseling and social work educators from colleges and universities in the area called on the city to stop using the police as first responders to mental health calls.

The police are only one part of the mental health system, which providers say can be improved as a whole.

“It’s a system, a continuum,” Mauro said. “I don’t know how you pull it off, frankly. “

Journalist Maki Becker contributed to this article.

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