In 2015, future Geneva Police Chief Mike Passalacqua told Spectrum news that GPD officers undergo “about 14 hours of mental health training through the police academy when they initially go through school, and that’s really it. We don’t really have much more exposure than that.”
In 2018, the Geneva Police Department said they “sent three officers to the Train-the-Trainers course to be able to deal with individual that have mental illness or disabilities. They trained all GPD officers, Seneca County Sheriff Department Officers and recently Finger Lakes Law Enforcement Academy to train the recruits that were there.” This statement was in response to a question from a community member at an April 2018 community policing forum.
At two of the community Q&A sessions held in 2018 with future Chief Passalacqua, residents expressed concerns about the GPD’s handling of past mental health crisis calls, and Passalacqua stated his willingness to meet with mental health advocates to discuss mental health crisis training.
While the Geneva Police have apparently increased their mental health crisis training from “basically nothing” to “something” in the last year, there are still questions about whether the GPD is improving in their responses to mental health calls.
Several recent news articles reported that on Thursday, January 3, Geneva Police officers were called to a city residence in response to perform a welfare check.
A welfare check is “when the police respond to a requested area to check on the safety or well-being of a person.”
“Friends, family, and neighbors are important social contacts. They may regularly check in with loved ones to see how they’re doing. When a loved one fails to respond, the police can be called in to conduct a welfare check.”
When police respond to a welfare check and find that the individual is experiencing a mental health crisis, they can “transport a person who wants to go to the hospital” or “take a person to a hospital for an involuntary evaluation.”
At the January welfare check, the police claim that when they arrived, they spoke with the 25-year old female resident. Police allege that the resident “immediately became combative,” picked up a large butcher knife and displayed it in a “threatening” manner towards the officers. The officers claim they were in fear of “physical injury, serious physical injury or death.”
The resident was arrested and charged with two felony counts of menacing a police officer.
Someone who knew this young woman called the police because they were concerned for her well-being. The police themselves say that the young woman reacted to their visit by almost immediately threatening the officers with a butcher knife, a response that could point to a mental health emergency, or perhaps even a “suicide by police” scenario.
In a 2018 article about police responses to mental health calls, Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who studies policing as a law professor at the University of South Carolina, explained that officers are taught “to be intimidating, to gain control of a situation completely and quickly. Officers are taught to make themselves look commanding and threatening by standing with their legs spread wide, chest out, and hands on weapons. Voices should be loud, commands shouted. If the suspect doesn’t obey or doesn’t obey quickly enough, the police are trained to move in closer and shout louder, until the suspect responds.”
The article continues, “It’s meant to be scary, but for a person with mental illness, particularly one who with psychosis or paranoia, it can be downright terrifying. And for such a person, the approach can produce the opposite of the intended response, driving the person to lash out rather than to obey.”
At this point, we only know one version of what happened during the January 13th welfare check. That version says a 25-year old woman responded to a welfare check by immediately threatening two police officers with a butcher knife, resulting in her arrest on two felony charges, and with no mental health evaluation performed.
At a time when mental health care access for the people of Geneva is under threat of being dramatically scaled back, it’s critical that we work to make sure our police department is equipped to handle mental health calls.