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Monroe County begins diversion of mental health calls to non-police responders

Body Camera Footage / Rochester Police
A screenshot of police body camera footage of the arrest of Daniel Prude. Prude had been released from Strong Memorial Hospital only hours early after a mental health evaluation.

Monroe County will immediately begin to divert behavioral health crisis calls that do not require an immediate in-person response to the 211/Lifeline crisis hotline and will work to develop an around the clock system of non-police responders to handle mental health crisis calls that need an immediate, in-person response, county officials announced Thursday.

Both initiatives were suggested by a county mental health and substance abuse disorder task force, which on Thursday released a report and findings about the county’s delivery of key mental health and addiction services, including its Forensic Intervention Team, which pairs county mental health clinicians with police officers responding to calls in which a person is experiencing a crisis.

“For far too long, our systems have failed to help the people who need help the most. It is time to stop the cycle of expending our resources in ways that do not deliver help to people when they need it,” County Executive Adam Bello said in a news release. “The immediate changes I am announcing today are just the beginning of our work: it is impossible for us to fix a systemic problem by treating any one single symptom. We must make thoughtful, meaningful,and equitable reform.”

Bello formed the task force in September, following the public release of body-worn camera footage from a March incident that resulted in the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police officers. When police encountered Prude, he was naked and in the midst of a mental health crisis. One officer ordered him to the ground and handcuffed and soon after, three officers restrained him.

As the officers restrained Prude he stopped breathing. He was transported to Strong Memorial Hospital, where he died a week later.

The county task force was charged with “developing and implementing short-term strategies to address immediate gaps in the County’s behavioral health emergency and crisis response systems,” as well as laying the groundwork for long-term, systemic changes. It was specifically instructed to look for ways the county could improve access to services for Black people and other people of color.

One key recommendation from the task force is that the county make its Forensic Intervention Team, or FIT, an around-the-clock operation. That effort will be bolstered by a $653,199 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice secured by the Bello administration and approved by the County Legislature in January.

Bello stated in the new release that in the long-term, the county would aim to create a network of crisis response services which better serve the needs of the community.

In a news release, Sheriff Todd Baxter noted that police agencies are seeing a continuous increase in mental health calls for service, which at times put officers in situations best suited for a response from mental health professionals.

“To be frank, we have created an environment where people are accustomed to calling 911 as a solution to a slew of non-law enforcement issues,” Baxter stated in the release. “I look forward to expanding the Forensic Intervention Team to address gaps, safely expand the capacity for other non-law enforcement options, and strengthen our community’s capacity to address the full range of individuals’ long-term needs.”

The FIT expansion plan is not new. The county originally had planned to make the program an around-the-clock operation in September, using $360,000 in county funds and $300,000 in city funds that Mayor Lovely Warren had designated either for a city-specific unit of the Forensic Intervention Team or to fund its own crisis response team. The mayor opted for the latter and the city recently launched its Person in Crisis Team.

This past September, the county Legislature approved $100,000 from a fund it controls for the county to use toward the FIT expansion. Republican legislators have been pressing the administration on what became of that funding.

Republican legislators have been pressing the administration on the FIT expansion and passed a measure that set a legislative hearing on the “deficiencies in utilization and deployment” of FIT for 5:35 p.m. on Feb. 23.

“To date, we cannot confirm that last year’s allocation from the Legislature was ever utilized to expand FIT; nor confirm a 24/7 Forensic Intervention Team stands at theready,” said Majority Leader Steve Brew, in a statement issued earlier in February. “Additionally, we did not see a single change or recommendation to improve delivery of mental health, domestic violence, child protective and other social services with our 911 emergency system. Our community deserves and demands answers immediately.”

The county also intends to ramp up partnerships with other crisis response teams, which can respond as an alternative to police, according to the Bello administration’s news release. It cited the city’s Person in Crisis Team, the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Crisis Response Team, and Rochester Regional Health System's Behavioral Health Access and Crisis Center as likely collaborators.

The task force’s report also recommends redirecting 911 mental and behavioral health crises that do not require an in-person response to 211/Lifeline, where operators would assess the situation, try to de-escalate it, and refer the caller to mental health, behavioral health, and substance use disorder support services.

The report also places an emphasis on community outreach. The report acknowledges a gap in understanding of both behavioral health issues and the resources available to county residents. The task force recommends an educational campaign in partnership with prominent community organizations, to help people learn about the services available to them.

The implementation of these plans will be led by April Aycock, who has been tapped by Bello to serve as the county’s director of mental health services. Aycock most recently served as the clinical coordinator for the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Strong Recovery young adults and adolescents clinic.

“We must reimagine how our behavioral health systems provide critical services and care to individuals in crisis and their families,” Aycock said.

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