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Police mental health training bill passes

Legislators unanimously support additional training

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The Nassau County Legislature approved a bill last week that is intended to promote alternative approaches to mental health-related interventions by Nassau County police officers. The measure, written by Legislator Josh Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury, and cosponsored by Legislator Siela Bynoe, a Democrat from Westbury, received unanimous support from both sides of the aisle.

The bill calls for the creation of a committee called the Nassau County Police Department Mental Health Unit, to be co-chaired by Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder and Carolyn McCummings, commissioner of the county Department of Human Services. The NCPD will work in conjunction with County Executive Laura Curran’s office to appoint committee members, consulting as well with social workers, mental health professionals, law enforcement and public health experts. The committee will convene within the next 30 days.

Lafazan said he studied the issue of law enforcement and mental health at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He focused on the Houston Police Department’s mental health unit, he said, which trains officers to respond to mental health-related calls.

Those calls to the police have increased 227 percent since the late 1990s, Lafazan said, and now account for roughly 20 percent of all calls. Meanwhile, he added, Nassau County police cadets undergo approximately 840 hours of training, only 10 of which are dedicated to mental health.

“What we’ve seen across the nation is that there’s been a disproportionate number of people with mental illness who have been killed by police,” Lafazan said, “which is why every department in America can benefit from a review of their policies and procedures.”

How the county’s most vulnerable residents are treated says a great deal about our society, Lafazan said, adding that he hoped the committee would have an honest and pragmatic conversation about how to change the way police officers respond to those with mental health issues.

“In the United States of America, two things can be true at the same time,” he said. “You can support the men and women of law enforcement, as I proudly do, while also believing that every department, including ours, can benefit from the thorough explanation of new ideas.”

Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, a Democrat from Glen Cove, said that the new bill was an important one, that the county police fully support it, and that extra training is always welcome.

There have been a few cases in the past couple of years in which someone with a mental illness was approached while acting unusually, DeRiggi-Whitton said, and police thought it could be a drug-related situation. She said that more extensive training could help police recognize the difference between a mental health issue and drug or alcohol impairment.

“There’s a lot of behavior that can be demonstrated through someone with mental illness or some type of Alzheimer’s or Asperger’s or anything else that could mimic other conditions,” DeRiggi-Whitton said, “so I think it’s important for people to be aware of the best way to approach them. I think it’s all positive; there’s no negative to it.”

As the mother of a diabetic, she said, she has learned that a severe diabetic low can appear similar to intoxication, and she hoped to see issues like this addressed in future training.

Chris Ortiz, deputy chief of the Glen Cove Police Department, said the GCPD, too, backed the bill. “I think that any legislation that will expand services for people suffering mental illness would be greatly appreciated,” Ortiz said, “and is important for the entire county.”

The GCPD recently examined its responses to incidents involving mental illness, he said, and initiated training on de-escalating these situations. The department is teaming up with Glen Cove Emergency Medical Services, Ortiz said, to help those with mental health issues get the hospitalization and the treatment they need.

Although it is difficult to quantify how many of the 25,000 calls the GCPD receives each year have a mental health component, Ortiz said that it can present itself in any kind of case, whether it be a domestic, violent or vehicular crime.

“I hope to free up some training budget to help our officers understand and contemplate the issue of mental crisis more in-depth,” Ortiz said. “We certainly try to focus on that in all of our training efforts, but additional training will certainly be welcomed.”