BY KATHY KAHN
“Orange is the New Black” on Netflix, but in real life law enforcement, police officers would prefer seeing those with mental health issues in hospital gowns of blue, getting the help they need rather than being put behind bars.
A grant administered though NYS Department of Mental Health gave 14 Rockland County police officers the opportunity to learn how to deal with 911 calls for help from mentally ill or distressed persons.
When Clarkstown Police Chief Michael Sullivan was approached by Sen. David Carlucci and asked if his P.D. would like to participate in a crisis intervention program the NYS Dept. of Health was funding through a grant, he was quick to jump on the chance. As a result, $21,000 was awarded to Clarkstown to train officers how to handle calls that need mental health crisis intervention. “The first person I thought of to lead the team of officers to be trained was Lt. Jeff Wanamaker, who is our team leader for hostage negotiations,” said Sullivan.
Lt. Wanamaker was quick to give credit to Don Kamin, director for the Institute for Police Mental Health and Community Collaboration, department of NYSDOH. “He (Kamin) is the one who put together the program and made this crisis intervention team concept a statewide initiative,” said Wanamaker. “We were fortunate to be one of the eight police departments in the state to be chosen.”
Kamin taught the weeklong, 40-hour class to the 14 police officers at Rockland’s Fire Training Center, where the graduates also received their certification on June 12. Along with Kamin, Rockland County’s Dept. of Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Office and the Office of Veterans Affairs participated in the weeklong training.
Treating the mentally disabled or disturbed with compassion and understanding, while avoiding any physical confrontation whenever possible, was the goal of the week-long 40 hour class. Nyack Hospital, which works in tandem with the Clarkstown P.D. to handle mental health crisis calls, also participated in the program. (Chief Sullivan said Nyack Hospital’s new collaboration with Montifiore Hospital will not alter the partnership the police department and the hospital have firmly established).
“The criminal justice system is not the place for people with mental health issues or emotional disabilities,” said Sullivan. “By training officers how to handle situations where intervention, not arrest, is the answer, we are going to do our best to get the people we encounter during these calls to get the help they need, not just arrested and passed through the system. Jail is not the place for ‘treatment.’”
There are 165 officers in Clarkstown’s Police Department, and Sullivan said the town was fortunate to be chosen, thanks to the efforts of Carlucci: “We are splitting these trained officers into three different shifts and working on establishing the protocol to have someone available at all times. Eventually, we’d like to see every officer receive this training. We’re lucky to have Lt. Wanamaker as a team leader, he’s a great asset to our department.”
“This critical funding will provide law enforcement officers with the specific tools needed when interacting with an individual who has a mental illness,” said Carlucci in a prepared statement. “Far too often, law enforcement officers are the first line of defense with dealing with the mentally ill who are in crisis. The $400,000 we secured in the state budget in 2014-2015, coupled with the additional $500,000 in the 2015-2016 budget, will reduce the number of arrests of those with mental illness and allow the law enforcement community to strengthen their relationships with mental health partners, criminal justice agencies and the community.”
Sadly, America tops the list of the nations of the world when it comes to incarcerating people, many of them who belong in hospitals, not behind bars. Sullivan acknowledged that, while his officers are receiving training and Clarkstown P.D. already works with Nyack Hospital and other agencies in the county to help the mentally ill, the facilities to help those who need mental health intervention are shrinking. “There’s nothing we can do about that,” said Sullivan. “We are doing the very best we can with the resources we have. Luckily, Rockland’s mental health agencies are very committed to the people who live here. In that respect, we are more fortunate than other places.”