City police form crisis intervention team

Tonawanda News 

By Jessica Bagley

Tonawanda News — The City of Tonawanda police department has formed a crisis intervention team of officers who specialize in dealing with residents who suffer from mental illness.

“The team is a group of officers that have been recently trained that follow up on any type of calls where mental services came in,” Capt. Fred Foels said. “It is an up-and-coming trend in Erie County, and Cheektowaga and Lackawanna also have teams.”

Lt. David Ray and another officer had been certified as crisis intervention officers since 2007, but Ray said the program had fallen by the wayside in the county due to budget cuts. Chief William Strassburg has been instrumental in helping officers form and grow the team, Ray said.

In February, the city hosted crisis intervention training that four other officers completed. During the 40 hours of training, mental health providers and counselors presented information on mental illness and treatment options.

“Dr. Michael Cummings came out and spoke about medications, what the hospital is doing, and offered us assistance and support,” Ray said. “We talked about crisis suicide prevention and the indicators of somebody who may be having a mental health crisis.”

The team of six crisis intervention officers follow up on calls that involve residents with mental illness, Ray said. The team is able to refer the residents to agencies, and help them with problems that may be contributing to the illness — such as homelessness or domestic violence.

They also assist with coping strategies and connect them with those who are successfully dealing with their mental illness.

“There are also times when we have to force somebody to go to the hospital and get an evaluation done,” he said. “That could cause stress, issues and conflicts with the officers … and the team tries to repair the damage that may have been done and build a rapport.”

Each case differs, but the relationship between the team and the resident can be ongoing. Ray said they have stayed in contact with individuals for six months to a year, meeting with the resident once a month or every few weeks.

The department is attempting to grow the program and train 10 to 12 officers by the end of the year, so that crisis intervention officers are available 24/7. Three more officers will be sent to a training in April, and Ray said the department may also be hosting another session in October.

“Over the course of the past decade, there has been an increase in adult hospital transports, and we didn’t feel properly trained in dealing with the issue,” Ray, a 13-year veteran of the force, said. “It has been helpful and beneficial to us to come up with other ways, other than saying ‘we don’t know what to do with that person, so let’s send them to the hospital.’”