Improving Police Interactions

Posted on December 12, 2012
With almost 35,000 officers patrolling the streets daily, the New York City Police Department is the largest and most sophisticated law enforcement agency in the world. Given NYC’s growing mental health population, it's inevitable that at some point the paths of an NYPD officer and a person living with mental illness will cross. The NYPD often does a good job keeping us safe, but with only 6 months at the police academy and a few short days of diversity training, it’s evident that not all the City’s various populations garner the respect they deserve. One of the most neglected groups is those living with mental illness.
There have recently been several unfortunate interactions between the NYPD and some Fountain House members, so the advocacy committee has sprung into action in an attempt to deal with these problems. Although it’s possible to point fingers and place blame all day long, the committee felt that working with – not against - the department would be the best way to prevent future issues. The advocacy committee has come up with a two-pronged plan that we hope will help minimize the interaction between those in our community and the NYPD.
Once upon a time, a group of Fountain House members and staff helped the NYPD train supervisors to deal with people living with mental illness. The training may not have been as intricate or in-depth as we would’ve liked, but it was a start to building an effective bridge. Seeing how this program was discontinued, we needed to come up with a different approach, and we figured the best place to start was here at Fountain House.
The advocacy committee put together a series of workshops to educate our members on many of the things that make an encounter with the police either smooth and orderly or rough and uncomfortable. The presentation, led by Joe McWalters, Dice Cooper and me, set out to inform members about what types of identification they should be carrying, the rights they have when stopped by the police, and how they should react when approached. The first phase of our presentation was extremely successful and very interactive. People shared their firsthand experience and asked a lot of questions.
The second phase of our presentation, which is still in the works, will be a role-playing class that allows members to practice how to act and what to do if and when they are stopped by the police.
We also want to develop an educational program for the NYPD – this time not just for supervisors but for the officers as well. Ideally, we’d facilitate a week’s worth of classes for officers while they were still in the academy. This is a tough ask, but we’ve come up with a list of chiefs and commissioners to whom we will be sending letters in hopes of developing long-lasting and successful relationships.
In this media age, we’re often quick to criticize the actions of the police. There’s no question that some stories we hear in regard to police misconduct are true, but the overall success of the department cannot be denied. Officers undergo rigorous training, but they clearly need more preparation to deal effectively with the mental health community. The department labels someone living with a mental illness as an “emotionally disturbed person,” but we at Fountain House know they are much more. They are individuals who, like everyone else, deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully.

Freddy Morello
Employment Unit and Advocacy Committee, Fountain House

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