Spectrum News is investigating the handling of mental health calls by local law enforcement. If you or someone you know with a mental health condition has had any interaction with Buffalo Police Department and would like to share your story, please email me at Camalot.Todd@Charter.com. Thank you.
In at least three incidents, Western New York law enforcement's response to mental health calls has escalated to harassment and violence.
In March, Rochester police officers responded to a mental health call by Daniel Prude’s brother.
Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man, was suffering acute mental health problems and walking down the street naked and bleeding, according to the Democrat and Chronicle.
Prude’s death was ruled a homicide and sparked public outrage.
Earlier this month, Buffalo Police Department (BPD) officer Karl Schultz shot Willie Henley, a 60-year-old homeless man when responding to a mental health call.
BPD Captain Coordinator Amber Beyer serves as the crisis intervention team coordinator and partners with the nonprofit Crisis Services to train law enforcement on how to deal with those in a mental health crisis.
“I’m not sure if anything could have helped in this situation, but giving them the tools to go in there and try these methods that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.
Crisis Intervention Team/Training (CIT) helps train law officers in how they respond to mental health calls while building collaborative community partnerships with hospitals and mental health providers, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
But these recent incidents highlight how decades of defunding mental health services in the community led police to becoming the de-facto providers — something that can have violent consequences for Black Americans, like Prude or Henley, with mental health needs.
“As a result of deinstitutionalization, police have been the primary responders for those suffering from mental illness. While not all individuals are violent, police are called due to an increased level of aggression or agitation by family members or the community,” said Beyer.
People with untreated serious mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, according to a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center.
Yet, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Professor Amy Watson says concerned community members, friends, and family members are taught to dial 911 if they suspect someone is having a crisis.
Watson studies how law enforcement intersects with mental health care.
“The person is already in crisis and feeling unsafe and out of control and when police show up even if the police do the best job that they can it’s just a very frightening experience,” Watson said. “Usually it’s not one officer — it’s multiple officers and it can really escalate that person’s anxiety and trauma and then make it harder for them to cooperate.”
While having police respond to the most dangerous incidents of a mental health crisis is necessary, across the nation and in Western New York, what is missing is adequate funding for the mental health care system, said Watson.
“Certainly having a community mental health care system that people can access care before they’re in crisis — and that’s very difficult,” she said. “Oftentimes if someone feels like they need to connect with care or reconnect with the care that process can take several months which makes crisis more likely.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown announced that there will be a Behavioral Health Team on BPD in addition to the officers who were trained in CIT.
Over 600 officers have been trained in CIT by Crisis Services, Jessica Pirro, the executive director of Crisis Services said in Spectrum News’ Buffalo’s #IAm1in5 July’s Facebook Live.
This includes 135 officers on BPD, but there are now about 128 CIT officers on the force, according to Beyer.
However, Watson warns that without addressing racial bias in the implementation of new programs will not have the intended results in communities of color that need mental health care.
Several social workers and organizations have criticized the ongoing role police play in mental health calls and instead, ask why Buffalo and other cities aren’t already using and supporting resources that are in place.
The Crisis Services Mobile Outreach Team has a do not deny policy for police.
“When police call us, it’s expedited. Our goal is that whenever there is a police call or they’re on scene or they recently saw someone in the community and they feel they need a mental health evaluation the answer is always yes,” said Sarah Boone, a Crisis Services mobile counselor.
Boone says that the Mobile Outreach Team will respond within 30 minutes to an officer's call.
But a successful case for the Mobile Outreach team is one where they’re called before someone reaches that level of crisis where they can connect a person with mental health needs to a counselor, medication if necessary and other services.
“People always say if you have a fire, you get a firefighter to help you. If you have a medical problem, you get a doctor to help you,” Boone said. “It does not make sense intuitively that someone experiencing a mental health crisis should receive a response from someone who is not a mental health professional.”
Crisis Services operates a 24-hour, 7-day hotline at 716-834-3131, supportive services for families in crisis through their established Mobile Outreach Program and/or visit their website for more information.
To learn more about the criminalization of mental illness and substance use, read/watch the 7 part-series Spectrum News series, Navigating The System, below.