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In a hopeful development, police departments are learning new skills to keep the mentally ill out of jail

One of the biggest challenges to police departments, corrections facilities and entire communities is the increasing number of unhelpful confrontations between police officers and people with mental illnesses. Too often, that has resulted in a trip to the jailhouse, exactly where most people with mental illness do not belong and where personnel are unequipped to deal with them.

That may be changing as police departments acknowledge the unwanted reality of this dynamic and seek training to avoid what can become violent confrontations and, instead of criminalizing mental illness, to find a way to provide the care individuals may require.

It’s a big step, and one for which police departments should be congratulated. It may be a little like asking soldiers to be peacekeepers or nation builders – that is, taking on tasks that radically diverge from their traditional missions – but the fact is that police and people with mental illnesses cannot avoid each other and, often, criminal charges are both inappropriate and damaging.

The number of interactions between police and mentally ill people has become an especially serious matter because of the state policy of deinstitutionalizing patients in mental health hospitals. The plausible theory behind the policy was that many patients could be treated more effectively and at less cost by moving them into the community, where a network of caregivers would help meet their needs.

The problem was, New York State pursued only part of that formula – the part that cut state costs – without ensuring that the community care networks were in place. That left mentally ill New Yorkers with few resources and a pattern of conduct that frequently brought police into the mix.

It’s been a problem for years, but police departments – including some in Western New York – are learning how to accommodate this new dimension to their work. The approach revolves around the creation of crisis intervention teams. The Cheektowaga Police Department is using the model and others, including those in Amherst, West Seneca and Lancaster, and the Sheriff’s Department, have officers trained in it. Buffalo, where the need may be greatest, will send personnel for training later this year.

Police may still use jail as a stopgap to prevent a dangerous situation from becoming tragic, but the ultimate goal is to connect people directly to appropriate mental health services. It seems to be working in Cheektowaga, where the police department’s CIT officers have forced fewer people into Erie County Medical Center’s psychiatric emergency room – a solution that usually works only temporarily – even while the number of calls involving mental illness has gone up. The department also halved the number of instances in which officers used physical force to admit someone.

This is a hopeful development and, once again, it shows Cheektowaga to be leading the way in Western New York. Another recent News story examined the town’s commitment to training officers to recognize their own inherent prejudices and how those prejudices might unnecessarily help to inflame some of their contacts with the communities they serve. It was a proactive move on the part of town and police leaders.

In a way, the training in crisis intervention is a throwback for police who, in decades past, were seen as community fixtures. The “friendly cop on the beat” may be a cliche, but like most cliches, it is one that springs from a kernel of truth.

Policing is a difficult job and one that, mishandled, can bring disastrous consequences. Many departments and officers, including some in Buffalo, have come under severe pressure over the past few years, especially as the predictable presence of smartphone video has documented misconduct by officers.

But programs such as those undertaken by Cheektowaga and other departments show that at least some are paying attention and trying to find ways to do their critical jobs better. That is at least a little reassuring.