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Onondaga County police officers train to respond to people with mental illnesses

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Police officers in Onondaga County complete a crisis intervention team training course.

Thirty police officers in Onondaga County completed a crisis intervention team training last week that helps them recognize and respond to people with mental illnesses. The goal, when possible, is to divert those with mental illness from the criminal justice system towards treatment services.

The training is a combination of police officers understanding what people with mental issues go through and how to steer them towards receiving the proper care at a psychiatric center, mental health clinic or detox program.

Mat Roosa with the Onondaga County Department of Adult and Long Term Care Services said officers learn about the conditions of Schizophrenia, hallucinations, delusions, depression and suicidal ideation.

“If the officer understands what those symptoms are then they can have empathy for that individual, and then the engagement is much more productive, much more healthy, much less likely to result in a conflict or arrest,” Roosa said. "That's a win for everybody because certainly, officers are not interested in arresting folks unnecessarily. No one is interested in incarcerating individuals for some activities out in the community that really don't typically warrant an incarceration."   

Don Kamin, the lead consultant for the statewide CIT program, said officers participate in a mix of different lectures and scenarios.

“We have one in particular which is called the hearing distressing voices exercise, where everybody gets a headset, and goes through a series of exercises while hearing voices, having the experience of auditory hallucinations to develop some empathy about how difficult it is for individuals who experience hearing voices,” Kamin said.

The training is just the beginning of an ongoing process to bring law enforcement and treatment agencies together to improve the system.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.