Law Enforcement and psychology are cut from different bolts of cloth, but bonded together they can form a formidable force.
Before Cedric Alexander, Psy.D., chief of the Rochester, N.Y., Police Department, introduced a program entitled Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team (EDPRT), the number of officers and individuals injured when they came in contact was alarming.
Since its inception that figure has been reduced dramatically, said Alexander, who spent nearly 20 years as a police officer with the Miami-Dade County Police Department before deciding to go back to school. He obtained his doctorate at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
After that was a one-year internship at Miami University in Florida followed by his post-doctoral work at the University of Rochester Medical Center where he stayed for five years as a member of the faculty before joining the Rochester police. He was named chief of police in April.
In explaining the need for the EDPRT program, Alexander said, “As much as 80 percent of the calls we go to in this city, even across America, has a mental health component attached to it, anything from domestic abuse to somebody who’s feeling distress. It became important to me to look at a list of mental health issues police officers are not really trained to do.
“When you have officers who have a little better insight to these issues it allows them to do their job a little better, which results in less injuries to both officers and people,” said Alexander, a self-effacing man who tends to shy away from taking praise for the program’s success.
But since the program’s introduction, the EDPRT team has handled 400 distress calls without a single injury to police or those they confront. Only 11 times did police have to use any kind of force and still there were zero injuries.
There was no single incident that prompted Alexander to make the change, but one that came shortly after he joined the force demonstrated the need.
A young man had a psychotic breakdown in a parking lot, the chief explained. Officers approached the man and a fight broke out. Through no fault of the officers the man suffered a heart attack.
“This wasn’t the only incident, Alexander said, “but it characterized how we have a number of people out there with mental health issues.” So he developed the program to save lives, particularly police officers trying to help the public.
What Alexander is most pleased with is what he called the unusual working relationship the department has developed with hospitals and mental health facilities, something the force didn’t have before.
“With this program, we are actually woven into what they do. It’s great stuff,” he said with enthusiasm, sounding like the proud father of a newborn child.
Volunteers to EDPRT must undergo a rigorous screening process. Once accepted they go through 80 hours of training. The first 40 hours cover fundamental issues, including mental health, indicators of mental illness and suicide prevention. The next 40 deal with such things as personality disorders, juvenile and elderly issues, stress and compassion and fatigue on the part of officers and individuals.
“What I wanted to accomplish,” Alexander said, “was to help officers to be more broadly trained to cope with the challenges they have on the street and to help people.”
“Amazing,” is how Sgt. Eric Weaver, team commander, described the program. “What we’ve accomplished over the last two years is tremendous. And how this community has come together in working with law enforcement is something I haven’t seen in the 20 years I’ve been on the force.”
Under Alexander’s tutelage, Weaver said he sees “EDRPT as much more than a team of officers that respond out to individuals who are suicidal or mentally ill. We have successfully taken people to hospitals and mental health facilities for care and treatment. And we follow-up. That’s phenomenal.”
“Absolutely,” he exclaimed when asked if incidents of police and public injuries are down. And, he added, this is a result of the chief’s program.
“In school what we address more than anything is stigma awareness. We spend a tremendous amount of time dispelling stigma myths, stereotypes of mental illness, what they are and what they really mean.
“We try to break down walls and barriers that people and society have concerning mental health. We try to change the perception of officers in what mental health is and what it’s all about.”