Local police take mental health crisis training
PAUL SMITHS — Four police officers, two from Saranac Lake and two from Malone, finished training designed to improve their interactions with people in mental health, substance abuse or emotional crises on Friday. The officers said they learned a lot from the program and plan to bring their new knowledge back to their departments.
The Crisis Intervention Team training was included in both Saranac Lake and Malone’s police reform plans passed earlier this year and was funded by the state Senate through the state Office of Mental Health.
Don Kamin, director of the Institute for Police, Mental Health and Community Collaboration, has been running this training program for seven years now.
“This was the best class,” Kamin said, partially as a joke.
He said the officers from Saranac Lake and Malone were genuinely interested and wanted to be there, which is not always the case in his experience training officers around the state. He also said this was the first time a local community services director sat in for the whole week of training.
Franklin County Community Services Director Suzanne Lavigne said she was “stoked” about the training.
Training for crisis
Kamin said when there’s a mental health crisis, it’s best to respond with a mental health expert. A pilot
Counselor and Law Enforcement Partnership, or CALEP, the village started last month embeds a therapist in the SLPD to assist on mental health and addiction calls, but when they’re not available, Kamin said police should be trained to give help, too.
The goal of these trainings is to teach communication and deescalation skills like listening, empathy and diversion, Kamin said.
In these situations, he said the “command and control” method officers are taught in police academy is not the best method.
If someone is suffering from paranoid delusions, it’s not best to convince them it’s not happening, he said. It’s better to build rapport with them.
Research shows CIT-trained officers have more skills, are shown to use less force and divert the people they interact with from the criminal justice system, and toward mental health resources, more often, he said.
Kamin said putting someone in jail can sometimes perpetuate the problem.
“Now, this isn’t a ‘get out of jail free card,'” he added. “But oftentimes, if it’s obvious their emotional state or mental illness is causing what’s going on, let’s go to the root cause.”
“This is what the community wants and we’re working towards working better with the community,” Malone Police Department Chief Christopher Premo said.
Cheektowaga Police Department Chief Brian Gould also ran the training.
Saranac Lake Police Department Officer Thomas Lauzon said he volunteered for the training because he previously worked at Sunmount, a state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities facility in Tupper Lake. He has experience working with people with mental illnesses and wanted to apply that to his new job.
He said it is “very common” to be called out for a situation that’s not criminal, but emotional or mental.
“We have a lot of people who suffer from mental illness in Saranac Lake and I like to see that there’s a different approach where we can help these people,” Aaron Sharlow, an SLPD officer of two-and-a-half years, said. “We’ve dealt with people who are severely in emotional distress.”
“They’re having a bad day,” Lauzon said.
Both said they were glad to have Community Connections of Franklin County, a mental health branch of the county, at the trainings.
Now, they’ve got a place to point people in crisis to get more services, rather than just leaving because there isn’t a crime.
Both also said they’ll be bringing the skills they learned back to the rest of their officers at the department.
Lauzon, who’s been at the department for a year-and-a-half, said they all got an overview of crisis response in the academy, but the CIT training “is better than what we’re receiving in academy,” because they’ve got real-life experience to apply the skills to now.
“It kind of puts training into reality,” Sharlow said.
Sharlow said the lesson that stuck out most to him was about tone of voice.
“The same statement can mean two different things just by your tone of voice,” he said. “That’s a big thing, just being patient.”
Lauzon said it’s important to be “understanding of their situation.”
James Underwood-Miller, a counselor with Citizen Advocates who was also at the trainings, is running the new CALEP program in Saranac Lake, which received praise from both law enforcement and mental health professionals there.
“It’s the best thing we’ve had in a while,” Lauzon said.
Lavigne said the program has been “phenomenal.”
Underwood-Miller said he’s averaged one call a day since the program started in Saranac Lake in early September. He said sometimes he’s seeing people “on the worst days of their lives” and handles cases of substance abuse, suicidal ideation or mental health crises, along with or after law enforcement.
He said the goal is to keep law enforcement from getting involved again. He said a CALEP-style program is not available in a lot of places, but it’s needed everywhere.
Lavinge said the county mental health office is partnering with local police departments, St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment & Recovery Centers, Citizen Advocates and Community Connections of Franklin County.
Lavinge said Citizen Advocates is trying to expand the program into Malone, and is funding the effort itself.