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Nassau legislators seek study of mental health unit to assist police

Nassau County Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) in November

Nassau County Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) in November 2019. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

A pair of Nassau County lawmakers on Friday introduced legislation calling for a committee to study the feasibility of a specialized unit in the Nassau County Police Department to respond to emergency calls for people in mental health crisis. 

The resolution, sponsored by Siela A. Bynoe (D-Westbury) and Legis. Joshua A. Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury who caucuses with the Democrats, would convene top police and mental health officials to study "alternatives to a police-led response in mental health-related encounters" that would also include an expansion of the role of the county's Mobile Crisis Team. 

The committee would be co-chaired by the commissioners of the county police department and Department of Human Services.

Lafazan said he studied the issue of mental health in policing extensively in graduate school so he has a lot of ideas on what would be effective, but said any final proposal can only go forward with the support of the police department. He cited the Houston police department's mental health procedures and training as a model for Nassau.

"Our office phone has been ringing off the hook and many activists and many folks in the community have called about mental health policing and reform," said Lafazan. "My vision here is to loop in the police department as a partner for the reform. Realistically, if something is going to pass and work in Nassau County we have to build that coalition of stakeholders, and the police are stakeholders here." 

The proposal comes as activists across Long Island have renewed their calls for police reform following the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. 

Police encounters with those in mental health crisis have become increasingly regular, according to experts. 

Mental health-related calls to police have risen 227% since the late 1990s, according to 2018 San Jose State University research, and police officers spend approximately 20% of their time responding to calls involving people with mental health issues. 

Just last year, Nassau police fatally shot man with a history of mental illness inside an Oceanside home after he charged at them with a samurai sword. And Thursday, an NYPD officer from Long Beach was charged with strangulation after using a chokehold to subdue a man who said he was bipolar in Far Rockaway, officials said.

Bynoe said those incidents were top of mind as she worked on this proposal. Bynoe said she has already heard examples of the police calling on the county's mobile crisis team of mental health specialists to accompany them to calls for service, but thinks that should be formalized. 

"We want to look at how Nassau County can better serve individuals who are suffering through a mental health issue," said Bynoe. " And the police are usually the ones called. I think having mental health professionals respond or a unit that’s within the Nassau County Police Department is most appropriate to be studied at this time."

“I have received and will review the resolution as requested by the legislators, Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said in a statement. "I always have to keep in mind that the safety of the Police Officers and Police Medics comes first." 

Chris Boyle, a spokesman for the legislature's GOP majority, when asked for the his caucus' stance on the resolution, said in a statement: "The Majority looks forward to reviewing the legislation filed this afternoon, as we do with all bills. Majority legislators remain committed to doing everything they can to keep our residents and police officers safe."

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