March 28, 2013


Police train on mental health

City PD forming response teams to handle people with mental illness

PoliceBob Ellis/staff photographer
Russell Hollier, left, of Family Counseling Services, presents a program to a group of law enforcement personnel from Central New York including the Cortland Police Department and the SUNY Cortland University Police Department. It was part of a week-long program training police officers in handling emotionally disturbed people.

Staff reporter

About 30 percent of police calls in the city involve dealing with civilians who have some kind of mental illness, said Lt. David Guerrera.
By collaborating with mental health agencies, the Cortland Police Department wants to provide its officers with extensive training to respond appropriately.
Officers from the department, as well as from other local police agencies, are attending training this week to form an Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team for city law enforcement.
“There are a lot of mental health issues in Cortland, as there are in any community,” said Guerrera.
EDPRTs are based on the crisis intervention team model utilized by police agencies across the country, which have been successful in reducing injuries to people emotionally disturbed and officers, as well as the number of persons suffering from emotional illnesses being incarcerated, said Guerrera.
Cortland’s EDPRT will be commanded by Guerrera and will consist of a sergeant and six patrol officers, who are undergoing 40 hours of training across five days this week. They will then be available to be dispatched to incidents involving individuals experiencing mental health issues, consult with other officers handling such incidents and work closely with mental health professionals to provide services to those in need.
“It worked out. We asked for volunteers; it was not a thing we forced anyone to do, but we got a lot of interest,” said Guerrera. “We hope to see it grow at some point.”
The patrol officers are split among three separate shifts, so two can always be on hand to assist in reports of someone who might be acting out from schizophrenia, multiple personalities syndrome, or severe depression and to be counseled or referred to a professional.
Guerrera hopes this will cut down on emergency calls as officers follow up with problem cases to make sure they are taking medication and getting the proper help. He believes the training will track those with mental illness away from the criminal justice system and toward mental health services.
Without financial assistance and donated instruction from the Cortland County Department of Mental Health and other community groups, Guerrera said the training would not have been possible.
Retired Rochester Police Sgt. Eric Weaver and local mental health agencies lead the training. Besides city police, participants include the SUNY Cortland University Police, Syracuse University Police Department, and the Homer Police Department. Weaver said Cortland’s was the only new team being formed as a result of the training, and that other officers were attending to benefit from the discussion panels and presentations.
“There are a lot of resources in the community. It’s just a matter of bringing them together so no one falls through the cracks,” said Weaver, who added that the training was to enable officers to guide those who need help to overcome their hesitation and seek it.
Jason Stepkovitch, clinical director of Cortland County Mental Health, said during a morning session on Wednesday that helping patients overcome the stigmatizing behind mental health issues is a big part of his job.
“They’re not different from any other physical illness,” he said. “It would be a real help if you guys could spend a minute or two telling them what the clinic is and what they should expect.”
Topics during the various seminars and panels include medications, local mental health resources, mental hygiene law and police stress. The training emphasizes the importance of collaboration between first responders and mental health professionals, Guerrera said.
Cortland Police Officer Andy San Jule brought up the issue of adolescents and young adults seemingly aggravated reliance on medication.
“At the colleges every student has three or four different pill containers,” he said during a comment session. “Twenty years ago you never saw a commercial on prime time (television) for depression. Now parents see it’s on TV, so maybe it’s OK.”
Stepkovitch agreed that too many see prescription medications as a cure-all.
“There is an enormous pressure to immediately fix the problem. Patients come in a lot of the time now expecting a pharmacological cure, but they’re not meant to treat life problems. Don’t come to me expecting Xanex after you get in a fight with your girlfriend,” he said.
Weaver called it a “double-edged sword,” saying on the other hand that there are those with legitimate psychological issues who are in need of significant medication.
The Cortland Police Department will have the fourth EDPRT in New York state, following the cities of Rochester, Troy and Binghamton, Guerrera said.
Training continues all week at 9 Main St., the Beard Building, with a graduation ceremony scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Friday.


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