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Legislators call for more police mental health training


County Legislators Josh Lafazan, an Independent from Woodbury, and Siela Bynoe, a Democrat from Westbury, filed a resolution on June 26 that would convene a committee to study alternative responses to mental health response and intervention by law enforcement.

Lafazan said he studied this issue while a student at the Harvard Graduation School of Education. He said he studied the Houston Police Department’s mental health unit, which has officers specifically trained to respond to mental health-related calls as well as to train other officers, something which he said he would like to implement in Nassau with the creation of the Nassau County Police Department Mental Health Unit. The committee, he said, would be made up of department officials, public safety experts and mental health professionals.

Mental health police calls have increased 227 percent since the late 90s, Lafazan said, and make up roughly 20 percent of all calls.

Additionally, he said police cadets in Nassau receive 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 in their policies and procedures.”

Lafazan said he hopes the committee would be formed this month, after which it would have to convene within 30 days. He said the members would speak with mental health professionals and officials of communities of color right away.

Legislator Delia DeRiggi-Whitton, a Democrat from Glen Cove, said she would fully support the creation of such a committee. She said further mental health training for police would always be beneficial, especially since officers sometimes only have a few seconds to respond to a crisis while answering a call.

Glen Head resident Andrea Macari, a clinical psychologist and member of the North Shore School District Board of Education, said police training on mental health issues could make all the difference to mentally ill offenders and the officers involved.

“There’s a lot of research in other states that show when you train police officers in crisis intervention,” Macari said, “you actually decrease rates of injury and often, when these individuals end up in the legal system, you’re able to divert them into mental health courts.”

In diverting mentally ill offenders to mental health courts, Macari said the justice system enables them to get the treatment they need. She said mental health treatment in the prison system is not adequate in most cases, so sentencing mentally ill offenders to prison without taking their mental health into account can be detrimental. She said she has had mentally ill patients who have been inappropriately incarcerated, forcing them to miss out on an opportunity to be cared for.

When it comes to crisis intervention, Macari said de-escalation procedures should take top priority for officers because many mentally ill offenders are paranoid and suffer from delusions or hallucinations. She said a show of force by police can trigger a person’s underlying delusions or hallucinations, putting them at risk of aggression because their distorted belief systems tell them they are going to be hurt.

However, Macari said mentally ill individuals are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

Lafazan and Macari both said the destigmatization of mental illness in society is an important issue which must be taken into account. Lafazan said governments across the country need to work to ensure they treat people with mental health issues and disabilities humanely.

Macari said the removal of a societal stigma on mental health could enable more mentally ill people to seek treatment. This, she said, could lower the chances of people with mental illness from engaging in criminal or threatening activities.

“If we really care about improving the mental health of society,” Macari said, “it’s important that we have policies and procedures that destigmatize mental illness, including in the mentally ill offender population.”