CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WKBW) — Last year, Assistant Chief Brian Gould had an idea that would transform the Cheektowaga Police Department. He created the Police Behavioral Health Response Program with the help of Endeavor Health Services.
“Law enforcement is expected to respond and handle all different types of calls... If it's a drunk driver, that's our responsibility. If it's a person in mental health crisis, maybe we're not the best people to respond to that," said Gould.
“This is a different era. It's an era that needs to happen,” said Officer Jennifer Szymborski.
Sarah Bonk, a behavior health specialist, helped pilot the team. She works side by side with officers, specifically her partner Officer Jennifer Szymborski.
“We both have different perspectives. I am looking at the mental health perspective she's looking at the law enforcement side of the house. We talk about our approach and how it's going to better help the people," said Bonk.
They go to calls involving mental health crisis together. Their goal is to de-escalate the situation.
“I will make sure that everyone is safe and we are in a safe place and then Sarah will just naturally come in," Officer Szymborski said.
"Really what that involves is empathy. That's really the best engagement tool we have," Bonk said.
Yet the team works to prevent a crisis from ever happening.
“We look in the computer and see hey we've had an increase with this person. It seems like they're struggling we should go follow up. The goal is to try to head off a crisis," said Officer Szymborski.
Officers even refer people to Bonk.
“One of the biggest changes I've noticed is the police's willingness to ask for help on these calls or ask for follow up," Bonk said.
This partnership has brought about significant change within the police department and the community.
“I can say first-handedly I've seen the changes in the community. I feel the changes in the community when I go and respond to calls," Officer Szymborski said.
“It's an abundance of warmth in the community. More than I anticipated,” Bonk said.
They hope the positive effect this program has had on Cheektowaga will now spread to Buffalo with the creation of the Behavioral Health Team, consisting of Buffalo Police Officers and clinicians all led by Bonk.
“We're sharing what we've learning in this program. We've built this program from the ground up," said Gould.