Colonie Police launch new system for interactions with people who have special needs

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COLONIE – Many families of people with mental illness and other special needs are worried about what could happen in interactions with police.

A new system in Colonie is designed to give police officers possibly crucial information about things like triggers or calming methods.

Handle with Care allows both officers and family members to enter information about a loved one– information police will have at their fingertips in crisis communication

“This registry– if we know what types of things to avoid, we can avoid them, and if we know what things will help us build rapport, we can focus on those that will bring people joy,” said Colonie Deputy Chief James Gerace.

The registry for families is voluntary, and it’s an easy form to fill out online.

Colonie police launched the system with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It has NAMI’s stamp of approval.

The executive director’s son has struggled with a mental illness..

“It’s a scary thing to pick up the phone and call 911. First, nobody wants to do that, especially with someone they care deeply about and they love,” said NAMI NYS Executive Director Sharon Horton. “But then to feel worried about that interaction, what is that interaction going to look like?”

“We’ve seen a lot of experiences where there have been negative outcomes throughout the state, obviously Daniel Prude being the most famous one where his brother called to get Daniel help during a mental health crisis and the police ended up taking his life in Rochester,” said Matthew Shapiro, NAMI Senior Director, Government Affairs.

To get a look at the registry in action, police took us through a fictional call involving a person with mental illness, from dispatch– to interaction.

“9-1-1 what is the address of the emergency,” said Colonie Senior Dispatcher Anthony DiScipio, as he took the call in this mock scenario. “Okay, I understand, so your son left the house there on foot, very emotional and upset?”

Sergeant Anthony Sidoti in the car is told the person is part of the Handle with Care registry.

“For example, the person we’re looking for, it says that he has difficulty controlling his emotions when he becomes upset, that loud noises or sirens or being called Joey can upset him further, and that he prefers to be called Joseph,” said Sergeant Sidoti, looking at the screen in the patrol car.

There’s also a photo of Sergeant Joe Fitzsimmons, who is acting as “Joseph” in this demonstration.

“These are all good things that without the registry I wouldn’t know, which help me get off on the right foot and hopefully have a positive encounter with ‘Joseph,'” said Sergeant Sidoti.

No loud noises, so he drives with lights only, and arrives at the call with some important information that could make a big difference.

NAMI says not all departments have a culture that is ready for this program.

Colonie has done a lot of groundwork. The department handles close to 3,000 mental health-related calls a year.

“We’ve had mental health professionals come in and be part of our training to work on de-escalation techniques, how to talk to people in a mental health crisis,” said Colonie Police Chief Michael Woods.

“The Colonie police are on the cutting edge of understanding this type of mental health and how to manage it in the field and so that we have a positive outcome,” said Colonie Town Supervisor Peter Crummey.

The voluntary registry could help adjust response, as well as improve interaction.

“Really what we’re trying to do is encourage anyone who has loved ones or family members that would benefit from this, we want to encourage them to sign up for the registry,” said Deputy Chief Gerace.

Some families have already signed up for the registry. Hear from them on Part 2 of Handle with Care, which will air on Thursday evening.

MORE: Handle with Care Registry