Albany County to create new department to answer mental health calls

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ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Albany County leaders say they’ve heard calls for change throughout the year, and now they’re finally ready to respond.

“These young people that are out there peacefully protesting that are truly trying to save the world, and out of that conversation we talk about the interactions between the police and citizens and the public,” says Albany County Legislature Chairman Andrew Joyce.

Wednesday, the county announced the Albany County Crisis Officials Responding and Diverting program — or ACCORD. It’s being worked into the 2021 budget as an extension of the existing county Mobile Crisis Team and will have cooperation from mental health services, county offices, and local law enforcement. Officials explain if a non-violent call comes in, such as a welfare check, threats of suicide, substance abuse, etc., a social worker and EMT team will be dispatched together instead of a police officer or deputy.

“I think that this is exactly what this county needs to help stem some of the violence that may happen by an officer really not knowing how to handle a mental health person, and [a situation] that might not be a crime either,” explains Sheriff Craig Apple.

Several of Wednesday’s speakers referenced Dontay Ivy, the mentally ill Black man who died in the custody of Albany Police in 2015. They say this program hopes to avoid a similar tragedy and show these agencies learned from that mistake.

“Albany County has responded to that. It may have taken a few years, but one thing that we do know is that we learned some thing from that. That’s one thing I’m very proud of Albany County about. We’ve taken services to the level that it should be where police response can now have also the partnership that they need with mental health services to ensure that people who have issues I responded to correctly,” says Albany County Legislature Deputy Chairwoman Wanda Willingham.

Albany County Department of Mental Health Director Dr. Stephen Giordano adds across America only five percent of the general population is estimated to suffer from mental illness. However, in comparison 17 percent of the jail population and 37 percent of the prison population have mental illnesses.

“The largest psychiatric institutions in our country include Rikers Island, Cook County Jail in Chicago, and LA County Jail in Los Angeles. There’s something wrong about that,” he comments.

He says he hopes this new program will put qualified professionals in a better position to intervene and keep the mentally ill out from behind bars.

“We are not serving these folks well when they unnecessarily end up in the criminal justice system. Sometimes it’s necessary, but sometimes it’s not,” Dr. Giordano says.

Sheriff Apple also says he hopes the ACCORD program will help ease the massive burden put on by the pandemic.

“I’ve never seen so many calls for attempted suicides, threats of suicide, people screaming for help. So this is the perfect timing to get this out and running,” he says.

The ACCORD program will cost around $150,000 in its first year and will go into effect as soon as the 2021 budget is approved. Chairman Joyce says two new social workers will be hired, and they, Department of Mental Health staff, and EMTs will undergo specialized response training. Sheriff Apple also adds this training will be made available, free of charge, to first responders from surrounding areas as well.

Joyce and Apple say ACCORD will start first in the county hill towns, rural and outer communities as a trial and work towards implementing county-wide. Apple also adds this is part of his department’s reforms mandated by Governor Cuomo to be completed by April 1, 2021.

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