BUFFALO, N.Y. — The city of Buffalo is already getting some pushback after Mayor Byron Brown announced this week the department plans to soon allow social workers to partner with police when they respond to mental health calls. Some mental health advocates are now saying that's not the answer.
On the steps of City Hall, social workers and mental health professionals held a press conference Thursday to express a message they hope is heard by Mayor Brown and the Common Council.
"We as social workers coming in to assist police officers is not the solution," said one of the speakers.
"We cannot have one more of these incidences," said another.
After Buffalo Police shot a bat-wielding man during a mental health call last weekend, Brown announced the formation of a behavioral health team that will allow police and mental health professionals to work together to respond to mental and behavioral health crisis calls.
But some think that isn't the way to go due to problems within the social work community and law enforcement. Some believe improvements need to be made within both systems before they consider working together.
"The tragedy that could ensue is something that I think none of us are actually prepared for," said another speaker at the press conference.
In less than 24 hours, more than 150 social workers and mental health professionals signed an open letter to Brown and the Common Council urging them to rethink the partnership between police and social workers.
The letter demands the city ratify Daniel's Law, which would ban police from responding to mental health calls. They recommend the Common Council create a behavioral health advisory council that would identify the best practices for non-police crisis intervention. They also want the creation of a mobile emergency first responder system that would operate fully independent of the BPD to respond to mental health calls.
"Social workers need to be an independent solution, an independent mental health response team and we would be very happy to talk about ways we can restructure systems but to work within a system that has as many problems as police do, we certainly need to get it right at this point in time going forward," said Nancy Smyth, who is a social worker.
The letter also mentions the notion that a police presence during a mental health crisis call can potentially cause more harm than good.
"The presence on sight of the uniform, the fact that they are carrying weapons, the tone of voice they use when they give directives can really escalate a situation," said social worker Nicolalita Rodriguez.
Common Council President Darius Pridgen says it's clear there's a push for mental health calls to not be treated as criminal situations and they'll have to work out whether or not mental health professionals arrive on scene with police. But he says city leaders can't wait anymore to address the issue.
"Whether they're with police or not police is not really my greatest concern, what my greatest concern is, is getting the people who know how to handle mental health crises to a scene as quickly as possible," he said.
You can find the full letter below.