New York

Mental health crisis at Albany council meeting spurs discussion

After someone’s mental health crisis disrupted an Albany City Council meeting this week, city leaders are wondering how best to deal with similar situations.

On Monday, January 30th, a joint meeting of the city council and the planning commission was interrupted by calls for help.

A woman came to the side entrance and banged the glass with her open palm, shouted “Help” and asked to be let into the council chambers. She had tried to come through the main entrance but was denied by the security guard. She threw an iPod at the guard after being denied entry.

Many city leaders were shocked and acted like they didn’t know what to do. The session was suspended for approximately 10 minutes. Two city employees, including city manager Peter Troedsson, went outside to speak to the woman to calm her down, but she didn’t appear to offer a reasonable explanation for the outbreak, he later said.

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The building was then secured and residents of the building were not allowed to leave while employees dialed 911. Two officers and the city’s mental health crisis responder, who works with the police department, were dispatched to the scene.

The evening’s events have prompted some city leaders to question best practices and proper protocols when faced with mental health crises, not just at City Hall but across Albany.

For some city leaders, the response felt inadequate.

“I didn’t like that we were locked up and this woman was only wearing a sweatshirt and it’s 32 degrees. I think she wanted to speak to a woman,” Councilor Steph Newton said.

Newton had tried going outside, but city officials advised her against it, she said. She feared the reaction was some kind of “othering,” making the woman inherently feel different, and she found that harrowing compared to the city’s role in helping its citizens.

“There was a disconnect between the work in progress and the people the work was intended for,” Newton said.

This is a person worth helping, she said.

For Newton, it became clear that security forces were unprepared to deal with a mental health crisis. She also concluded that one psychiatrist working with the Albany Police Department may not be enough.

It felt like the woman wasn’t responsive to her needs, she said.

“This has shed light on an area that we need to improve,” she said. “It was honestly heartbreaking.”

Going forward, Newton hopes there will be a dedicated protocol to address mental health crises at City Hall and that a team of mental health workers in Albany can be brought in more widely – rather than the responsibility being shifted to one person in of the Albany Police Department falls .

“I think anyone would benefit from crisis training,” she said.

Newton says she’d like to see something like CAHOOTS, a nonprofit in Eugene that offers a community-based public safety response to crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.

Planning Commissioner Stacey Bartholomew expressed a similar concern. While she felt the city was doing its best, she believes a team to address mental health crises would help people get the resources they need.

Bartholomew has experience working with people going through mental health crises, she said. For them, the signs of a mental health crisis are easy to spot because of exercise.

Had Bartholomew been responsible for the situation, she would have spoken to the woman to reassure her and assess the situation, she said. Then she would have taken them to a private area with others present but not too close to listen to their story. She would have let her tell it as many times as she had to.

Men approaching the woman when her intentions were good and trying to be a comforting presence may have escalated the situation, she added.

Bartholomew acknowledged that she had not disclosed her skills at the time of the crisis. When asked why, she said others had already started responding and she didn’t feel like she could interject. Above all, she didn’t want to cause any more panic.

“I hope that in the future we can treat people with dignity even when we’re scared,” she said.

A program like CAHOOTS that would be separate from the Albany Police Department would be beneficial, she added.

On the other hand, Councilwoman Marilyn Smith believes the city’s response to the mental health crisis has been well managed.

Albany police responded quickly, with the psychiatrist in tow. Security has years of experience responding to people who behave in any way, she added.

She has worked for the city for more than 20 years, and incidents like this have become more frequent, she said. Sometimes employees are threatened by people who are unhappy in court, or there have been outbursts that make others feel insecure or uncomfortable.

But nothing like this has ever happened in the middle of a meeting with someone trying to break into the building, she said.

Smith also wishes there were more than one psychiatrist with APD. She added that the city recently approved training for the entire police department to be proficient in responding to mental health crises.

The incident “reassures me that we need more security in the building when it’s open to the public,” she said.

There is no specific protocol for responding to mental health crises, a city spokesman said. The Albany Police Department has the only staff member who is trained and dedicated solely to mental health, which given the lack of an established policy, has been recommended for staff to contact, Communications Officer Matt Harrington said.

The building was secured for security reasons, Harrington said. He agreed that basic mental health first aid training for staff would be ideal.

The woman, who appeared to be experiencing a mental health crisis, had been in contact with law enforcement both earlier that day and after the incident at City Hall, according to Albany Police.

Councilor Ray Kopczynski also believes the situation was properly handled. And while it’s uncomfortable, you can take something away from him, he said.

People in the room are making decisions that can impact local authorities working with people in crisis, he said. And seeing someone in crisis should give city leaders valuable perspective on the work of those local authorities, he said.

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