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Cops trained to interact with mentally ill
October 31, 2011
By Aisha Al-Muslim  

Hempstead Mayor Vows to Fight Census Tally

Some Hempstead Village police officers have gained one more skill that could help them defuse dangerous face-to-face situations.

The force this year became Nassau's first to undergo special training to improve interaction between police officers and people with mental illness or suicidal tendencies. Twenty of the village's 126 officers are part of a Crisis Intervention Team that grew out of an effort to prevent dangerous situations.

The largest village force in the county responds to an average of three psychiatric crisis calls a day -- more than 1,000 a year, officials said. Those calls often put village officers in situations that could quickly escalate.

"When you may think someone is intoxicated, they could actually be having an episode," said Officer Raquel Spry, 32, who has been on the force six years. "These are things that you see every day on the street."

Hempstead Village is home to several mental health agencies serving more than 2,000 clients and a variety of group homes and facilities that provide services to people in need.

"Mentally ill people wind up in Hempstead because it is the end of the line for buses and trains and we have a lot of mental health offices," said Lt. Pat Cooke, 49, a 22-year veteran.

In June, representatives from the Queens and Nassau chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and police officials created the first extensive crisis intervention training on Long Island with a $100,000 grant from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset. The four-day, 40-hour program focused on learning techniques to de-escalate tense situations and ways to better coordinate services and information between police and agencies.

"It's not only about people with mental illness being safe, but also that the officers are safe," said John Shorter, program coordinator from NAMI. "In many cases they get people help rather than arrest them."

Shorter and Cooke reviewed programs used in other cities, including Memphis, Tenn., and consulted with local and state mental health officials as well as family members and individuals with mental illness.

"After the training you realize there is so much more to someone's condition," said Officer Martino Derisi, 43, who has been on the force for eight years. "You are more compassionate in trying to help them."

A few weeks after the program ended, officers answered a call involving a suicidal and potentially violent person. Using techniques they learned, officers escorted the person out of the building without incident, Cooke said.

"The police sometimes are the only way to help our clients," said Melinda Carbonell, director of case management programs for the nonprofit FEGS Health and Human Services System. "It can be very traumatizing for an individual when they are not feeling mentally and physically well."

NAMI and Hempstead police are encouraging other departments to participate in the training. They are also assessing the impact of the training by tracking arrests and incarcerations of people with mental illness, rates of officer injury, use of force and use of restraints in the emergency room and jail.