Police learn to identify and respond differently to the mentally ill

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

“Constantly reassess”: Lieutenant Willie Flack III of the Albany Police Department said, at a police training on Monday that he was directing, that encounters with emotionally disturbed persons “may or may not involve criminal activity, and are usually not life-threatening.” He wants to see all Albany officers trained in how to look for signs of mental illness or substance abuse and to constantly reassess a situation in response to those signs.

ALBANY — About 20 police, corrections, and probation officers from the Capital District started a training program on Monday that is designed to help them identify and respond differently during encounters with people who are mentally ill. The aim of the program is to show the officers when and how to focus on de-escalating a crisis and on getting someone to help, rather than rushing in with bullets, tasers, or pepper spray, said social worker and event co-director Kathleen Flanigan.

Flanigan is with the Albany County Department of Mental Health and part of the Mobile Crisis Team, a group of mental health professionals available to assist police as needed with calls involving people who may be emotionally disturbed.

Near the beginning of the first day’s training, co-director Lieutenant Willie Flack III of the Albany Police Department, who has been on the force for 19 years, talked about a three-decades-old shooting by police that led to the creation of the Mobile Crisis Team.

Flack said that 31 years ago, Jessie Davis, a 35-year-old mentally ill black man, was shot and killed by Albany Police, who had answered a mental health call. Davis was holding in his hand what turned out to be a toy car, Flack said. He refused to comply with police commands.

Mobile Crisis was developed a year later, said Flack, following a lawsuit.

“We took a big hit over that,” Flack said. “It was reviewed, and whenever there’s a review there’s usually something good that comes out of it. In my mind, the creation of the Mobile Crisis Team was a blessing.”

During the one-week Crisis Intervention Team training program, officers will learn about cues that suggest various types of mental illnesses or conditions or substance-abuse issues, and learn to respond with greater knowledge, empathy, and confidence, in ways that are likely to produce the best possible outcome for the officer and the individual, said the event’s other co-director, Lieutenant Willie Flack III of the Albany Police Department.

Flanigan and Flack both spoke to participants about the need to remove the stigma from mental illness.

Flack told a story about a local 14-year-old who was on medication for mental illness, until some classmates began to bully him about the medicine, and he stopped taking it. The child wound up self-medicating with harder drugs, robbed someone in Washington Park at age 16, and spent the next two years in jail.

“It was kind of heartbreaking,” said Flack.

Flack told The Enterprise that he would like to see everyone who takes the class come away with the ability to “identify certain characteristics that present themselves, that aren’t always so evident.” He described these as “small tics, repetitive phrases, things that will aid them in the reassessment of the situation.”

Reassessment, he said, is key. “A lot of times, there is no secondary reassessment,” he said. “There’s the presentation, and the reaction.”

The point of the course, Flack said, is to help officers learn to constantly reassess, without sacrificing officer safety. “You still have to keep in mind officer safety because, if you don’t, there’s no telling what’s going to happen to someone else, after you.”

Role plays done throughout the week help officers gain new familiarity with and confidence about the options they have for trying to de-escalate a crisis.

Speakers will include mental-health experts, people living with mental illness and their families, and representatives of peer-support programs and residential programs.

“For us, the goal is just to slow down,” Flack said. “In the Albany P.D. we have crisis negotiators too. We can sit there all day [to talk with and try to calm someone in crisis] if need be.”

Some of the conditions that officers will be trained to more quickly recognize include depression, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism. Participants will also receive training in identifying and dealing with many different types of substance-abuse issues.

In addition to the many officers from Albany, several participants were sheriff’s department corrections officers, two were from the Probation Department, and one was from the Watervliet Police Department.

Flack mentioned that the Albany Police Department plans to have all of its members take the course in the future. He also hopes to see the department open its own specialized Crisis Intervention Team.

He told The Enterprise that the standard of training for police officers is an eight-hour course in mental health, but that the information learned there is a “perishable skill” that many officers may not get a chance to use often.

He also said that the whole area of dealing with mental-health issues can be unfamiliar for many officers, and said that the usual training paradigm for police may not work well in dealing with people in crisis.

“A lot of people go through life,” Flack said, “never having to encounter someone with mental health issues. Then you go into an employment situation where you're asked to deal with situations you're underequipped to deal with. You're in, let's face it, a paramilitary organization. These guys are trained that, ‘There is no one after you. You have to win.’ But this may be a situation where there doesn't need to be a winner. This may be a situation that can be viewed differently, without sacrificing officer safety.”

Flanigan said that officers also need to begin to talk about their own mental health. She mentioned “the recent incident in Colonie” — in which a Colonie police officer shot and killed his wife and 10-year-old son before setting the family home on fire and fatally shooting himself. “We have to take care of ourselves, so we can take care of others,” Flanigan said.


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