CATSKILL — The Greene County Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative homed in Wednesday on law enforcement’s response to mental health crises and officer wellness.
The collaborative was formed in August in response to a state executive order in June requiring all municipalities with a police agency to conduct a review of police policies and procedures and develop a plan to improve them in a way that will address the needs of the community.
Several local agencies were in attendance Wednesday to discuss their mental health services and how they work with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.
“One of the great things about having a county mental health center is the collaboration with law enforcement,” Greene County Mental Health Center Director Jason Fredenberg said. “Our office has had a really great experience with the sheriff’s office over the years.”
One way the two agencies work together is when police are sent to facilitate a pick-up order for a resident who presents a danger to themselves or others, Fredenberg said. The resident would be taken to a hospital for evaluation.
This type of pick-up, authorized under state Mental Health Law, is often used as a last resort, Mobile Crisis Assessment Director Katie Oldakowski said.
“[The law] suspends a person’s constitutional rights, which is not something we take lightly,” Oldakowski said. “We try to exhaust all other resources.”
The Mobile Crisis Assessment Team has a 95% diversion rate from hospitalization and a 99% diversion rate from police intervention.
If a resident is noncompliant with treatment, they may be ordered by the court to go to outpatient treatment under Kendra’s Law.
There are about 15 of these cases in the county, Fredenberg said.
The Mobile Crisis Assessment Team typically remains on scene until law enforcement arrives, Oldakowski said.
Law enforcement may decide to call an ambulance, Greene County Undersheriff Adam Brainard said.
“They may be a lot more willing to go in an ambulance than go with us,” he said.
An ambulance would be called if the person had self-inflicted injuries or was at risk of overdosing, Capt. Tracey Quinn said.
Greenville resident Thomas Kearney disagreed with the sheriff’s office’s involvement with mental health crises.
“It’s not their job, they’re not trained for that,” he said.
The team has faced dangerous situations when responding to incidents, Oldakowski said.
“We don’t know what we’re walking into,” she said. “We’ve had a gun pulled on us, a knife pulled on us. I had two staff that were hospitalized after they were assaulted.”
In addition to looking at how police respond to mental health crises, the collaborative must look at officer wellness.
Greene and Ulster counties partnered two years ago with the HERO program, which is designed to support the well-being of first responders.
With the large number of traumatic incidents that police and other first responders witness, they struggle with mental illness at a higher rate than the general population, Ulster County Corrections Officer George Hill said.
For example, the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder in police is 19% and for the general population the rate is 1% to 3%, Hill said.
The HERO program was instituted due to the high rate of suicide among first responders, Hill said.
“One hundred and forty seven police officers have committed suicide this year,” he said. “Obviously we’re not going in the right direction.”
New Jersey implemented a statewide resiliency program for law enforcement two years ago, Hill said. Greene and Ulster counties’ program will take that a step further by supporting police, firefighters, corrections officers and dispatchers, Hill said.
This type of program originated in the U.S. military and was reformatted with the FBI, Hill said, adding the sheriff’s office is working with the FBI to develop its program.
Officers will receive training to spot warning signs that may indicate a colleague needs help, Hill said.
Once fully implemented, which Hill said he expects will be in January, the program will provide support to families of first responders.
“If anyone is really going to see this officer that’s taking a turn for the worse, it’s going to be the family,” Hill said.
The Rev. Richard Turpin, who serves on the collaborative, asked if there is any protocol that requires an officer to be cleared for duty after a traumatic event.
Officers may be taken aside for a debriefing after a critical incident but it is not mandated, Hill said.
“You could ultimately bench an entire agency and you’d have no coverage,” he said.
Kearney said there was not enough oversight.
“It’s police policing the police, and that’s how we got here,” he said.
Local attorney Monica Kenny-Keff disagreed with Kearney’s statements.
“It’s not police policing police,” she said. “It’s police supporting police.”
While Greene County may not be experiencing the types of civilian deaths by police that are in the limelight nationally, the group should be figuring out ways to prevent that from happening locally, Kearney said.
“I don’t hear any of those ideas,” he said.
“If you think for one second I want someone out there doing something insane or stupid, that’s just wrong,” Greene County Sheriff Pete Kusminsky said. “That’s a direct reflection on me, the community and the sheriff’s office.”
Kearney encouraged the group to hold a meeting without law enforcement present, saying some residents are too intimidated to speak at the meetings.
Rabbi Zoe B. Zak, who serves on the collaborative, said she found the police presence to be helpful for her learning experience and also for security purposes.
“I think that’s a horrible statement,” Kearney said.
Kearney asked if the group was inherently biased due to their positive relationships with the police.
“Every person on the planet is inherently biased,” Zak said. “I think it’s our job to be as reasonable and as unbiased as possible to support our community.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requires input from leadership of the local police force; members of the community, especially those from areas with high numbers of police interactions; interested nonprofit and faith-based community groups; the district attorney’s office; the public defender; and local elected officials be considered in the review process.
A draft of the committee’s reform plan is tentatively scheduled to be completed in January. The reform plan must be ratified by the Greene County Legislature by April 1, 2021, with certification sent to the state Division of the Budget or the county will risk losing state funding.
The group’s next meeting, on Nov. 24, will focus on substance abuse. To review documents related to the collaborative’s efforts or submit questions, visit https://www.greenegovernment.com/greene-county-police-policy-review-committee/greene-county-police-policy-review-resources.