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Monroe County nearly triples staffing for police/mental health intervention program

Jeremy Moule / CITY
County Executive Adam Bello announces on Tuesday, March 16, that the county is further expanding its Forensic Intervention Team.

Monroe County has added 18 new positions to a mental health intervention program that assists law enforcement officers handling people in crisis and expects to have new staff on the job within 90 days, County Executive Adam Bello announced Tuesday.

The Forensic Intervention Team currently has eight full-time and four part-time staff. When hiring is complete, the staff will grow to the equivalent of 28 full-time positions, Bello said during a news conference. He noted that when he started as county executive in 2017, the program had the equivalent of five full-time positions, and those staff members were not available 24 hours a day.

“There has been an increased demand placed on our FIT team, and so in response, we’re taking the necessary steps to respond by committing more resources so those in need receive timely services and supports,” Bello said.

As he spoke, he was flanked by several law enforcement officials, including Fairport Police Chief Sam Farina, Ogden Police Chief Christopher Mears and Undersheriff Korey Brown of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. He was also joined by April Aycock, director of the county's Office of Mental Health, and Meghan Jenner, the office's community mental health services manager, and the FIT's supervisor.

The FIT program pairs mental health clinicians with police officers responding to calls in which a person is experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis. Members of FIT only respond to calls in which police request them and, in addition to responding in person to calls, they also provide follow-up services for the person experiencing distress.

The program’s expansion is part of a longer-term effort to improve how county mental health programs and other services interact with each other, Bello explained during the news conference.

Mental health assistance for police has been a longstanding issue here and around the country, but it came to the fore in September after the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of Rochester police officers. Prude was in the midst of a mental health crisis when officers restrained and suffocated him in March 2020. His death ignited public debate about the role of police officers in mental health calls, and whether officers should be called to them in the first place.

In September, Bello pledged to beef up the FIT program and announced that the county would direct $300,000 to expand it into an around-the-clock operation. Late last year, the county secured a $653,199 federal Department of Justice grant to aid in that pursuit.

FIT started operating 24 hours a day beginning in February, according to Aycock.

During the news conference, Farina praised the program’s expansion. He said officers around the county request assistance from the FIT multiple times a day, only to find no staff are available.

“This team has been invaluable to all law enforcement,” said Farina, who is chair of the Monroe County Law Enforcement Council.

Legislature Republicans and members of the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus have criticized Bello for not expanding the program sooner. Republican leaders have also called on the Bello administration to account for $100,000 the Legislature provided for the program’s expansion. The money came from a fund controlled by the Legislature.

Bello held Tuesday’s news conference a few hours ahead of a Legislature hearing on the county’s use and deployment of the FIT program. The hearing, which Republican legislators called for, was set to begin at 5:35 p.m. and was to include testimony from 20 participants. The hearing will be streamed on the legislature’s YouTube channel.

“The legislature’s persistence and hard work in calling for county administration to provide additional support to the Forensic Intervention Team has paid off,” Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew said in a statement Tuesday. “We are glad to see that County Executive Bello is adding new positions to FIT, though this only addresses one of the many aspects of this program. Without the ongoing advocacy of county legislators, this progress would not be possible.”

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