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During Monday night’s Lewisboro Police Reform and Reinvention Committee meeting, committee members discussed the Lewisboro Police Department’s policies regarding mental health calls and domestic violence calls, which are two of the most common calls LPD receives.

During the meeting, the Lewisboro police chief shared stark statistics showing how mental health and domestic violence calls have risen sharply this year.

Chief David Alfano said domestic violence calls in 2020 to date total 36, a 44% increase from 2019’s yearly total of 25. Suicide and attempted suicide calls went from two in 2018, five in 2019, and now eight so far in 2020.

Mental health calls have seen an 88% increase since last year. There were 12 in 2018, 18 in 2019, and 34 so far in 2020.

Chief Alfano said that calls regarding overdoses and harassment have more than doubled from 2019 levels. Lewisboro Police received four overdose calls in 2018, six in 2019, and 12 so far in 2020.

The drastic increases in mental health and domestic violence calls sparked a long committee conversation on the police department’s best practices to respond to these types of calls.

Moira Morrissey, a committee member and CEO of Four Winds Hospital in Cross River, highlighted several concerns. She directed the committee’s attention to the department’s mental health policy which states: “If an emotionally disturbed person is not dangerous, the person shall be contained until assistance arrives.” She questioned the value of using the term “contained,” calling it vague. Another committee member, Nikki Edleman, who is pastor of Stevens Memorial United Methodist Church, agreed. She emphasized that there should be a statement in the policy highlighting the need to protect the safety of the subject of the call. Andrea Rendo, another committee member, also spoke in favor of adding wording stating that containment must also safeguard the subject of a mental health call.

Committee member Richard Sklarin drew his colleagues’ attention to the police department’s procedures for evaluating a mental health-related situation. Mr. Sklarin suggested that Lewisboro Police refer to the Crisis Intervention Team International. CIT International is an online training program where officers in a department can get certified in various areas to better identify signs and symptoms of mental illness, mental health treatment, legal issues and de-escalation techniques. Mr. Sklarin, who was recently elected to the Lewisboro Town Board for a term beginning Jan. 1, said the organization could be a valuable extra training resource for the LPD. He also suggested the department work with mental health professionals at Four Winds Hospital.

Ms. Morrissey of Four Winds also offered to provide LPD with training. She said past efforts to work together ran into issues with scheduling and costs, but she would like to renew the collaboration.  

Chief Alfano emphasized that the department currently participates in annual service training dealing with mental health issues. Department members attend two-day sessions at the Westchester County Police Academy. He said he welcomed additional training as long as it was certified by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. He also expressed interest in collaborating with Four Winds as Ms. Morrisey offered.

Committee member and John Jay High School Principal Steven Siciliano, asked how the department’s policies and procedures differ for people over 18 and people under 18. Committee member and Lewisboro town prosecutor, Greg Monteleone, also inquired how policies change when the subject involved is a minor. Chief Alfano said he would look into the subject further and get back to the committee with more information.

The committee also briefly discussed sentiments heard in previous police reform and town board meetings about the benefits of a public health officer responding to calls in conjunction with police. The Rev. Edleman said during her time as a chaplain at Westchester Medical Center, she was trained in de-escalation and suggested that police departments could benefit from someone like a chaplain accompanying them.

Chief Alfano said that in many such cases where a chaplain is used in a hospital, the patient was brought there by the police. Ms. Morrissey added that while a hospital is a controlled environment, when police respond to a mental health call, there are many unknowns, and it could be potentially dangerous.

Chief Alfano added that the department has a 24/7 hotline through Westchester County where they can speak to a social worker at any time in case extra assistance is needed or an officer has questions about how to handle a particular situation.

Calls to the police involving emotionally disturbed persons often involve domestic violence, the police chief noted, saying this can cause complications in the police response because domestic violence calls can require mandatory arrests. However, Chief Alfano said the department will reclassify these overlapping calls as mental health incidents so the subject is not arrested and can instead receive help.

Domestic violence calls

Patti D’Agostino, a committee member and president of New Dawn’s board of directors, raised questions about several sections of the police code, such as in what situation would it not be practical for police to separate interviews of the involved parties. Other committee members also voiced concern over police being unable to separate the two parties in order to speak one-on-one with the victim.

Chief Alfano said he agrees with these concerns and that parties cannot be separated when only one officer responds, which is often the case in Lewisboro due to the department’s having only one officer on duty in each shift. He added that responding to domestic violence calls with one officer poses a major officer safety issue, and he advocated strongly for two officers working every shift.

Ms. D’Agostino also noted a policy section addressing arrest considerations in domestic violence incidents. She inquired as to whether there is consideration if there was a previous order of protection between the same two parties.

Chief Alfano said police do have the ability to check records, but with only one officer responding to an incident, they are unable to leave the subjects alone in order look up the histories on their computers.

Multiple committee members inquired about the resources available to domestic violence victims. Chief Alfano described a county resource the department has been utilizing for several years called the “lethality check,” which was created by the Northern Westchester Risk Reduction Team.

This lethality check entails two sets of questions posed to the subject. If the subject answers “yes” to any of the first three questions, or four in the additional set of 10 questions, an officer must contact the Westchester Medical Center Lethality Assessment Program line advocate for assistance. Chief Alfano said the advocate provides immediate safety planning for the victim and refers them to available shelters or emergency housing. The Lethality Assessment Program line advocate also puts the subject in touch with the Westchester County Office for Women, which provides lawyers and financial assistance.

The committee also briefly discussed a New York state law that went into effect Nov. 1, creating new protocols for temporarily removing weapons from the home. Chief Alfano said he was unaware of the law change until Nov. 14 and is seeking clarification on how it affects the department’s policy.

Committee members tasked Chief Albano with updating the department policy in accordance with committee suggestions and feedback, as well as learning more about how the response to mental health incidents involving a minor should be handled.

Jessica Leibman is a staff reporter at The Record-Review where she covers the Town of Lewisboro the Katonah-Lewisboro School District.

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