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Nassau lawmakers back study of ways for police to deal with the mentally ill

A Nassau legislative committee voted Monday to create a commission to study new ways for police to handle encounters with mentally ill people, including embedding mental health professionals with police officers as they respond to mental health distress calls.

The Democratic proposal, approved by a 7-0 vote in the legislature's Rules Committee, would establish a commission to review, "redirecting the role of law enforcement in mental health crisis response," according to legislation filed by Legis. Siela Bynoe (D-Westbury) and Joshua Lafazan, an independent from Woodbury who caucuses with Democrats.

Also Monday, the Rules Committee voted unanimously for legislation that would bar discrimination against employees based on their hairstyles or religious garb.

Bynoe argued that like calls to 911 emergency calls for medical issues, "I believe that when there's an aided call that comes in, and it's clear that it's a mental health issue, that we can respond differently, other than just sending police."

The panel, which would include commissioners with police and human services backgrounds, would explore whether to create a "mental health unit" in the county police department staffed with mental and behavioral health specialists.

The panel also would consider the option of deploying police officers with non-law enforcement staff, such as members of Nassau's mobile crisis team.

In such situations, law enforcement would intervene only if "an encounter has become violent or has escalated beyond the control of non-law enforcement personnel," according to the proposal.

But some Republicans expressed caution about the proposed commission.

Legis. Howard Kopel (R-Lawrence) said if, "we're going to study alternatives to the police, I would much rather see the study pointed at better training within the police department for police responding, to know what do. We certainly don't want to have the specter of social workers responding to holdups, or something like that. That's obviously not going to work."

Presiding Officer Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park) said he wanted to make sure both political caucuses had a representative on the committee.

Bynoe stressed that the commission would study how crisis intervention teams could respond along with police, "not in place of the police." She argued that, "it was never intended for us to have this team respond without the police." 

The legislation barring discrimination based upon an employee's hair or religious garb is similar to a measure the Suffolk County Legislature approved last month.

"It's important in this day and age, especially with the diversity of our county, that we recognize that these hairstyles, garments are important to people's different cultures and faiths, and they should be able to have those things without worrying about discrimination in terms of employment, housing or anything else," Nicolello said.

During the debate, Legis. Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview) pressed for adoption of regulations that also would bar discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

Drucker said the county's transgender population "is not covered by that code and charter."

But Nicolello said the broad language of the Nassau County charter protects transgender people from discrimination. He has made that argument to advocates in the past.

 "I think there's certainly strong and adequate protections on the books," Nicolello said.

Both the anti-discrimination bill and the measure to create the commission to study new ways for police to handle encounters with mentally ill people will require approval by the full county legislature.

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