ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — As the dust settles following protests and a declared riot at the Albany Police South Station, the community spotlight on police reform is hotter than ever. Mayor Kathy Sheehan announced Wednesday the first moves to implement the city’s reform plan submitted to the state.
Albany is now one of 14 cities selected to take an eight week training course on adding mental health crisis responders to 911 dispatch.
“What we are seeing in a number of cities is over a quarter of those emergency response calls really don’t require a public safety official or police official,” explains Simone Brody, the What Works Cities Executive Director.
What Works Cities plans to offer group sessions for the cities to hear from Everytown for Gun Safety and other city task forces where community policing and alternative emergency response programs have worked well. The training uses a blueprint from the CAHOOTS program from Eugene, Oregon that has worked with the White Bird Clinic to divert qualified mental health crisis calls to trained civilian professionals for more than 30 years. Brody says every city adapts the program differently based on its available resources, so there will also be individualized training and planning sessions.
“This is a field where there is not yet a best practice, so a lot of this is bringing together a set of experts that have been working on this around the country,” Brody says.
Mayor Sheehan says right now, Albany doesn’t have its own mental health department and the single mental health crisis unit is operated by the county.
“We know that that’s not sufficient, so I think setting a goal of being able to facilitate at least one if not two more should be a good goal within the year,” Sheehan explains. “We have to be sure we are not just referring somebody to a waiting list, but that we are referring people to the help that they need and that is going to require that we look at the ecosystem of mental health services in the City of Albany and find those partners.”
The collaboration will also focus heavily on community engagement and Sheehan says she hopes there will be more opportunities for in-person discussion forums as the vaccination rate goes up.
“We look forward to a summer of having public meetings — probably in parks, people feel more comfortable outdoors — but doing more community engagement so that people can see the action items, give us feedback about it, ask questions,” Sheehan says.
“There are many people in the community who are experts about what’s not working and what might be a better way, so we ask how do you actually design these efforts with your residents rather than create something for them that they have no involvement in,” Brody says.
Sheehan says the city will also hire a company to help rewrite some of the police department’s general orders. She says many of the policies are outdated, have not been changed in several years, and do not reflect state and local legislation changes.
“Rewriting of our general orders was probably one of the top recommendations, because everything starts with those general orders, what we tell our officers to do,” she says. “We have to take actions. We have to look at what we’re training our police officers to do and if we want them to do something differently, we have to take on that responsibility and train them to do something different.”