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Oswego's police reform plan answers some demands, but may leave others wanting

Payne Horning

For the past three years, the Oswego Police Department has been working on a kind of diversion program for 911 calls that involve a mental health issue. Rather than just arresting individuals or taking them to the hospital, the police call in mental health counselors from Liberty Resources, a behavioral health agency serving central New York, to deescalate the situation and provide treatment on scene.

Theresa Humennyj, director of this Regional Mobile Crisis Program with Liberty, said it's been well received by the community.

"It’s hard to trust anybody when you’re that vulnerable and to have law enforcement be able to bring in plain-clothed, trained counselors, you see the client’s shoulders drop when we’re able to say thanks law enforcement for your time we’ll take it from here - just instant relief," Humennyj said. 

Humennyj said mental health counselors spend anywhere from 45 minutes to 5 hours with the individuals to stabilize them and then follow up with treatment and other resources afterward if neeeded. And it's paying off. Humennyj said unnecessary arrests and hospitalizations have dropped since the partnership began.

"Those mental hygiene [calls] typically don’t necessitate an arrest, but they do necessitate some kind of intervention because a person is asking for that help," said Oswego Police Department Deputy Chief Zachary Mistzal. "We want to avoid a custodial-style arrest for something that’s non-criminal in nature and just want to provide a service for them."

Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow said the expansion of this co-response to 24-7 service is one of the ways his administration answered the calls from Black Lives Matter protesters who last year demanded mental health counselors to be part of police response. But under Oswego's recently passed plan, police are not co-responding. Officers arrive first and are then given the discretion on whether to call in mental health counselors.

Other cities like Los Angeles and Ithaca are proposing police reform plans where only first responders or unarmed police officers respond to mental health calls, a move meant to avoid the kind of deadly police interactions that have provoked mass demonstrations over the past year. And Hummenyj, who is working with police reform committees across the region, said some local municipalities are exploring actually directing certain 911 calls to mental health counselors rather than the police. 

"That is the hot topic right now – looking at potentially training 911 dispatch to look at how to assess the nature of the call, label the appropriate call, and then determine the appropriate response," she said. 

Still, Deputy Chief Mistzal said he thinks Oswego's system is the safest for the third parties they bring in and most practical.

"Every call we deal with, for the most part, can be different, so you never really know what you’re going to until you’re there and you have a second to take in what’s going on and take in that totality of circumstances," Mitstzal said. "So, our typical process would be that an officer would go and establish a baseline. They would see if this is something that’s violent, if it is something where there has been some kind of intoxication or self-harm where immediate intervention needs to be done. If it is established that it is a non-emergency style call where immediate intervention doesn’t need to be done, the officers then can use their judgment in contacting Liberty Resources."

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.