An emerging partnership between Citizen Advocates and the Saranac Lake Village Police Department aims to be on the leading edge of meaningful reforms for promoting public health and safety.
The push for reform was set in motion after an Executive Order was issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in response to widespread social unrest that ignited nationwide in the summer of 2020. As a result of the order, all police departments in New York State were required to conduct a thorough review of procedures and practices, with a specific focus on addressing racial and social inequities.
“Our community police departments are the frontline responders who often put their lives at risk to save others, and enforce the law,” said James Button, CEO of Citizen Advocates. “Recognizing the uncertainty police officers may confront, the presence of a trained mental health professional – when the need is determined – will improve the chances for a positive outcome by clinically assessing individuals and connecting them to the appropriate treatment and supports.”
The Saranac Lake Police Reform Committee was established in August 2020, and a portion of the discussion focused on mental health illness, and the associated volume of calls being responded to by officers.
“Individuals in crisis require specialized care, and that support must begin at the point of first contact,” said Suzanne Lavigne, a member of the committee and the Director of Franklin County Community Services. “We can support a community member in the moment of crisis and divert them away from our local emergency department and criminal justice system, and to professionals trained and skilled in responding to these types of situations. We need to ensure that supports and services are available immediately when a person needs help.”
At about the same time the Reform Committee was taking shape, Ms. Lavigne was discussing with Saranac Lake Police Chief James Joyce supports that could be of assistance to his department – this discussion was initially in response to needs and gaps in behavioral health crisis services in the south end of Franklin County.
This initiated talks between the Community Services Department and Citizen Advocates around the feasibility of embedding a clinician within the Police Department. This would be the genesis of one of the reform committee’s key recommendations, an innovative pilot program known as The Counselor and Law Enforcement Partnership (CALEP).
While local and state approvals are still needed, once implemented, Citizen Advocates will hire a licensed clinician to work exclusively with the Saranac Lake Village Police Department. The clinician – either a Licensed Mental Health Counselor or a Licensed Master Social Worker – won’t ride along with police but will be notified in the event of a mental health or substance abuse situation.
“Although the police are frequently called for behavioral health related crises, we are limited in terms of resources and training,” said Saranac Lake Police Chief Joyce. “The basic premise of CALEP is using the right tool for the job whenever possible. I believe that a partnership of this nature is fundamental to public safety and the well-being of the community.”
How it works
Following a risk assessment, individuals will be evaluated by the CALEP clinician to determine if immediate crisis intervention is needed. Otherwise, the clinician will provide one-on-one counseling in addition to follow-up appointments scheduled with the appropriate community provider.
“This initiative is a recognition that key community institutions and organizations can come together to achieve a shared goal of healthier communities,” said Mr. Button. “Whether it is making sure an individual receives the appropriate care they need, or maintaining the continuity of care for a person in recovery, we can simultaneously improve health outcomes, which in turn, allows law enforcement to focus resources where they can have the greatest impact.”
While there is no data available yet locally, similar programs elsewhere in the nation have generated significant savings for public safety and through avoidable visits to hospital Emergency Departments.
Once final approvals and agreements between the involved groups are reached, Citizen Advocates will begin the recruitment process for the CALEP clinician. The intent is to have the program fully operational by summer of this year.
To view Frequently Asked Questions about the program, click here.