Erie County legislators discuss whether 911 mental health calls can be diverted from police

Sep 25, 2020

Erie County legislators want to know how the 911 system responds to emergency calls of personal crisis. The deeper dive comes after a family called 911 for help with their mentally ill father and Buffalo Police ended up shooting him.

When a 911 call of personal crisis in Buffalo comes in to Erie County Central Police Services, dispatchers forward the call to Buffalo Police.  However, county legislators want to know if call-takers are given the training and information they need to screen and sort calls of personal crises from criminal acts.

Erie County Legislature Chair April Baskin is leading the effort.

"What happens when someone calls E-911 services with an emergency? I'm interested to know what sort of questions that they ask," Baskin said. "And then, of course, that is to expand and to see if we can do more development in order to vet calls better, to be able to determine if a situation actually needs mental health response rather than law enforcement response."

Legislator Howard Johnson said he and other legislators are asked every day how all of this works.

"We're both facing the same crisis in our districts," Johnson said of Baskin. "We need to know what's the protocol, how the calls are being vetted out. What we can do, possibly as an honorable body, to ensure that we are helping those most affected the most by this."

The current concern grows out of a real test of how all this works: the case two weeks ago of mentally ill and homeless Willie Henley.

Police were sent to his location along Michigan Avenue, where he was carrying his usual metal baseball bat. During a long confrontation with police, he allegedly hit an officer with the bat and another officer shot and wounded him.

The City of Buffalo wants to hire social workers to respond to these events and the Common Council wants 24/7 staffing by mental health professionals to make sure police have expert help in these situations.

Legislator Lisa Chimera said there is a large mental health treatment community and a county Department of Mental Health. She wants them to come into a committee session and talk about what could be done to make it a better process, so people in crisis get the care they need. She admits it is a much bigger problem than just 911 calls.