A Simple Step to Help Prevent Tragedies


MHAW’s Emily Sussman speaks to Suffolk County Police Department recruits. Seated to her left is Alexis Rodgers.

Seattle Seahawk Wide Receiver Doug Baldwin, son of a Florida police officer, spoke recently to Sports Illustrated in response to the actions of Colin Kaepernick.  Kaepernick, you might recall, is the 49ers quarterback who has been widely chastised for choosing to not stand for the national anthem before NFL games as a call for action to address the rash of tragic incidents involving police and African Americans. Baldwin noted, “…training for law enforcement is not universal across the country . . . there’s 18,000 [law enforcement agencies] in the country, and they all have their own specific training regimen, their own policies.” For example, he added, “…there are a lot of different definitions of ‘de-escalation,’ and I think that’s where the root of the problem is.”

Law enforcement personnel and people with psychiatric disabilities know all too well about the precarious nature of these interactions. On October 17, 2016, a rank-and-file NYPD officer fatally shot 66-year-old Deborah Danner, a woman with schizophrenia, who swung a baseball bat at him.  Unfortunately, the officer never had the benefit of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), an evidence-based training model that NYPD recruits now receive.  The incident brought memories of other such death-by-cop tragedies that trace back to the 1984 death of Eleanor Bumpers in the Bronx (see On the Tragic Death of Deborah Danner).

Police Officer Ray Sitler, who coordinates the mental health training for the Recruit Training Center for the Suffolk County Police Department, invited Association for Mental Health and Wellness (MHAW) advocates to augment the department’s mental health curriculum with their own personal, lived experience with psychiatric disabilities, including their interactions with law enforcement.  P.O. Sitler shared that he was inspired by his own experience as a father of a young man with autism and the vast gaps of misunderstanding that surrounds that disability.

Facilitated by Alexis Rodgers, MHAW’s Coordinator for Community Education, four advocates poignantly told their stories and gave critical guidance to nearly 200 police recruits. Emily Sussman, an MHAW staff member open about her own recovery, was impressed that, despite the formality of the recruits wearing their dress grays and sidearms, “they were a warm and interested group.  They asked interested and invested questions about how to approach someone, the kind of language to use, and demonstrated interest in us as individuals.”

Alysha, another advocate, shared a difficult interaction she had with an officer who stopped her for a minor motor vehicle issue while she was experiencing a lot of personal distress. She told recruits that the officer was cold and off-putting, and didn’t recognize her distress, which made her feel like verbally lashing out at him.

The speakers discussed a range of issues that officers might encounter such as responding to suicide threats, harassment by neighbors, distressing behaviors, roommate and community disputes, medication side effects, and substance abuse.  The recruits asked thoughtful and sensitive questions: “What would an officer have better said to you in that situation?” “What does the medication do?” “What helped you to get to where you are today?” “What about your family?” “What’s your understanding of why you have that illness?” “What happens if you drink or use drugs while you’re not well?” and dozens more.

Raymond, another advocate, said that myths that too often accompany people with mental illness, such as violence, and how myth alone can make a situation worse. Andrea, the fourth advocate, passionately explained the difference of how she appears to others in times of depression and in times of high-energy mania. The officers were transfixed and applauded the speakers loudly, including a couple of standing ovations.

Police recruit Dario Perito, who was previously an NYPD officer, said that the session reminded him of interactions he had with homeless people at train stations. While many fellow officers advised him otherwise, Dario made it a point to get to know the homeless people there more personally. “They told me a lot about why they avoided shelters and outreach workers as well as mental health and drug treatment facilities.” Recruit Luis Cabrera said he loved hearing the personal stories from MHAW advocates as they helped confirm for him that “people are people” and need to be treated with kindness when they are not in a good place.

Another recruit, Michael Smith, approached me after the meeting and asked whether, once he was assigned to a precinct, it would be a good idea to introduce himself to programs and community residences on his beat. I told him about the great relationship our clients in Ronkonkoma have – at our Pollack Center as well as at our local residences – with P.O. John Seppi of the Fourth Precinct and how his warm and confident involvement alone has frequently eliminated tension in distressful episodes.

Advocates know that too often it takes tragic events to move institutions to self-examination and action.   However, progressive police departments like Suffolk demonstrated in this training that meaningful discourse can bring powerful sensitivity and set an atmosphere where conflict can be resolved safely. And Doug Baldwin, along with other athletes, are now helping to lead these community conversations.

As Emily Sussman noted, “I think we really brought home the message that we are just people like their friends, family, and colleagues.  It was a wonderful afternoon well spent.”

Such a simple concept.

Our gratitude to Police Officer Ray Sitler and the Suffolk County Police Department.

Michael Stoltz has been at the agency’s leadership helm since 1990, first as Executive Director of the predecessor organization, Clubhouse of Suffolk, and since July 2014, the CEO of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness (MHAW). MHAW is the result of the merger of Clubhouse with Suffolk County United Veterans and the Mental Health Association in Suffolk County.                                                                                                                                             Under Michael’s stewardship, the agency has grown to one with an $10 million annual operating budget, 150 employees, servicing more than 3,000 people each year through its Ronkonkoma, Riverhead, and Yaphank facilities. A social worker by training, Michael received his MSW in 1982 from Adelphi University, where he has served as an Adjunct Professor teaching Social Welfare Policy and Human Service Management. He served as a Program Supervisor, developing and implementing the Suffolk County Intensive Case Management Program, as well as positions in management and direct service at several Long Island outpatient clinics.

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