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Advocates: Suffolk police mental health training needed for officers statewide

Susan Gottehrer, director of Nassau's chapter of the

Susan Gottehrer, director of Nassau's chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, seen in 2019, said during a webinar Tuesday night that "all too often people with mental illnesses are criminalized instead of medically treated." Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon

Crisis intervention training, like a program run by Suffolk County police, can help steer those with mental illnesses away from jails and to needed medical services, experts and advocates said Tuesday.

Jayette Lansbury, of the National Alliance of Mental Illness, said the organization endorsed the Suffolk police Crisis Intervention Team program, which provided some of its officers with 40 hours of training in de-escalation techniques. The officers also learn how to spot symptoms related to specific mental illnesses. The program’s primary goal is to avoid an arrest and instead provide people in crisis with mental health services.

Lansbury, who spoke Tuesday night during a webinar hosted by the Nassau County Jail Advocates, said the program should expand throughout Long Island.

"We would like to see [Crisis Intervention] teams in every area of the state, every county, every police force," she said. "It’s not only to help those with mental illness, but it’s also [about] officer safety."

Suffolk police began the training program last year. By the fall of 2019, about 100 officers had completed the weeklong course, which includes topics such as communication, de-escalation, emotional distress, mental illness recovery, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Suffolk police now have 138 officers trained in the program, police said Wednesday. The department plans to expand the number of officers trained because it's vital during the ongoing COVID-19 health scare, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said in a statement.

"The department recognizes the importance of this useful program and we have seen the value of having our officers trained in dealing with certain situations relating to the COVID-19 pandemic," Hart said.

During the webinar, advocates said the state’s jails and prisons were ill-equipped to properly deal with those with mental illnesses.

The webinar explored "ideas and programs that will help acknowledge the true nature of mental illness, how it should be handled and the acknowledgment that all too often, people with mental illnesses are criminalized instead of medically treated," said Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"This includes the journey from the point of contact with police through the court system and into, unfortunately, all too often, incarceration," Gottehrer said.

Panelists and organizers discussed how inmates with mental illness tended to have much longer stays in jails or prisons than others who were incarcerated. They also are more likely to commit suicide while in custody, panelists said.

New York State incarcerates more inmates with mental illness than it hospitalizes, according to webinar participants.

Beth Haroules, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, spoke about a program in Eugene, Oregon, in which medical technicians and other mental health professionals, rather than police, responded to people suffering a mental crisis.

"They arrive in vans. There is no uniform. There are no weapons," she said. "They do have the ability to get in touch with local law enforcement if they make the determination there is a risk of harm to the person or other people. … You can maintain public safety, you can maintain personal safety and you can also have positive outcomes with people with mental health challenges."

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