Mental health professionals express opposition to BPD’s Behavioral Health Team

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown on Monday announced the formation of the Buffalo Police Departments Behavioral Health Team.

Who should answer mental health calls?



“The team will be comprised of six police officers, two lieutenants, three clinicians and the clinicians’ program supervisor,” he said. 

However, on Thursday, several social workers and mental health advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall voicing their strong opposition to the idea.

They believe it’s putting a band-aid on a larger problem.

Prior to addressing the media Thursday evening, the group wrote a letter to Mayor Brown and Buffalo Common Council Members. 

In just one day, it got more than 160 signatures. 

The letter said in part, “While embedding social workers into police departments and/or having social workers accompany police to mental health calls may appeal to the general public, it is ineffective, unsafe, and unproven to reduce police violence in mental health crisis situations.”

The letter also laid out four demands: 

  1. Immediate ratification of Daniel’s Law. Named in honor of Daniel Prude, this law would ban police from responding to mental health calls.
  2. Mental health professionals should respond to mental health calls independent of police. One in four killings by police involve someone with a mental health issue. We demand the creation of a mobile emergency first responder system to respond to mental health calls. This program should a) operate fully independent of the BPD b) be culturally responsive and prioritize the hiring of BIPOC community members c) operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and d) be fully funded to ensure a timely response to calls and fair pay for workers.
  3. Creation and implementation of a Behavioral Health Advisory Council. In order to determine how best to meet the crisis mental health needs of community members without the police, the Common Council should designate a Behavioral Health Advisory Council. This council will a) be made up of social workers, mental health professionals, crisis survivors, community health workers, peer advocates, and community activists who identify as a BIPOC and/or are leading the call for racial justice, b) be responsible for identifying the best practices for non-police crisis intervention for the city to adopt and fund. This council may wish to explore options for creating a new Department of Public Safety at the city level, potential grants of municipal funds to community organizations, or partnering with the Erie County Mental Health Department as a possible administrator of crisis response services. The council should also provide ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the effectiveness of the new services.
  4. Ensure more adequate funding for crisis prevention and intervention-focused mental and behavioral health programs. Redistribute a portion of the BPD’s budget to local community-based mental and behavioral health programs and organizations focused on harm reduction to prevent crisis response in the first place.

One of their primary concerns is that they believe social workers should not be embedded into police departments.

“It does not seem that our police are taking a harm-reduction approach so that would not work alongside social workers and mental health workers who do take a harm-reduction approach,” said Nicolalita Rodriguez, LMSW, CHW.

“When you do that, it’s not the social workers’ structure and rules that are determining that situation. Police are the ones with more power in that situation. They have the guns for starters. So I don’t think that situation is gonna be managed in a way that a social worker can fully exercise the skills and the tools that we have,” said Nancy Smyth, the Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.

Smyth added, “And let me just imagine for a moment that you are a black or brown person, who is feeling very scared and threatened because of your mental health issues and a police officer shows up with guns. Probably a white police officer, but regardless, you’ve been watching not just on TV but in your own community, watching what happens when that happens. Is that gonna make you feel less threatened? Absolutely not. It’s actually gonna escalate the situation.” 

Last year the Cheektowaga Police Department adopted a similar program to the one proposed in Buffalo and organizers there said it’s been successful.

Learn more about that program here. 

Still, Smyth told 2 on Your Side, “Overall nationally the data doesn’t support it. So if we’ve had great results so far, that’s great. I say we’re gonna get better results with independent.” 

Rodriguez said, “We are asking specifically to re-allocate funding from the Buffalo Police Department’s budget because this is not police work. Mental health is not a police issue. It is a public health issue and it deserves to be funded as such.” 

We received this statement from a spokesperson with the City of Buffalo in response: 

“From research it is clear there is a place for cooperation between social workers and law enforcement when we are responding to people experiencing emotional distress. Many situations require both a trauma informed care approach by a social worker and the presence of police because the individual may still be a danger to themselves or others, including the social worker who is responding. It is important to note that mental health professionals routinely request assistance from the Buffalo Police Department when they receive a call for service for a situation involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis. This joint approach to assisting people in distress has been most recently endorsed by the National Association of Social Workers in an op-ed the organization published in the Wall Street Journal on June 15th of this year.

The officers and social workers of the BHT aim to get people in distress the assistance they need, produce a better outcome for that individual, and ensure the safety of everyone involved. The funding for this new initiative went to Endeavor Health Services and not to the Buffalo Police Department, so it cannot be allocated for a different purpose or to a different organization. And most importantly, the BHT will mean more social workers in the field helping people and more tools for police to peacefully resolve these situations, which are goals we all want to achieve.” 

To read the letter in its entirety, click here.

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