HOPEWELL — Several times a day, if not more, Ontario County sheriff’s office deputies respond to a mental health call or crisis. Depending on the situation, the officer can make a mental hygiene arrest and take the person — usually against his or her wishes — to Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic, where they see a behavioral health specialist.
Those arrests are still going to happen, but Ontario County Sheriff Kevin Henderson hopes they can be reduced through the use of technology that lets deputies in the field — and the person in crisis — talk to that specialist through an Apple iPad.
Ontario County is one of four law enforcement agencies in the state taking part in a pilot program using the iPad. The others are the Wayne and Broome county sheriff’s offices, and the Lockport Police Department.
“Technology has certainly changed the way we do things in law enforcement, and we are a progressive department,” Henderson said. “If it’s something we can try and people will benefit from it, we are going to try it.”
The sheriff’s office is working with Rochester Regional Health’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Evaluation Program. Rochester Regional Health has an affiliation with Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic.
Ontario County sheriff’s office Sgt. Mark Taylor, who is supervising the program, said state officials reached out to the sheriff’s office earlier this year about being involved in the pilot program. The sheriff’s office previously had a number of deputies take Crisis Intervention Training to deal with people who show signs of mental illness.
Taylor and Henderson selected three deputies with special training — Sam Colburn, Tim Durgan and James Baker — and gave them iPads. They work different shifts.
“We wanted a person on each shift to have this technology,” Taylor said. “We recently had a soft start, and Deputy Baker had a recent call at night and it was a successful resolution.”
The method is simple. After a deputy responds to a mental health call and the person agrees to talk to the mental health professional remotely, the deputy calls the hospital and the specialist calls back to the iPad and speaks to the person and the deputy face-to-face, similar to Face Time or Skype.
If the professional can resolve the situation by talking the person through it and perhaps setting up an appointment, the person is free to stay or return home. The deputy fills out a short survey on the iPad and is back on the road.
“Not everyone needs to be transported. In some cases when they do evaluations at Clifton after a transport, sometimes the person is released by the time we finish filling out a report,” Henderson said. “If we can resolve the situation without a transport, this frees up the deputy to get back on the road and do other jobs.”
The program is sponsored by the state Senate and administered by the state Office of Mental Health. Also involved is the state Institute for Police, Mental Health and Community Collaboration.
The program uses Zoom Healthcare software that is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act complaint for privacy purposes. After the person talks with the mental health professional, the deputy consults with the professional and determines what should be done.
“If the person is a threat to themselves or others, and is talking about suicide, they will be going to the hospital. We are not going to put our deputies in jeopardy. We will err on the side of caution and do the transport,” Henderson said. “If they are physically aggressive and threatening our deputies, we are not going to run up to them, put an iPad in their face and say ‘Try this.’”
“There is a little gray area. If it’s a clear-cut transport, we will do it,” Taylor added. “If they may be talking about suicide but don’t talk about harming themselves and others, they may be perfect for this type of service. For a deputy that deals with a mental health crisis, the iPad may be the first tool they use.”
Henderson and Taylor hope the pilot program is a success and the iPads are used for years to come.
“What I want people to understand is we are there to help them, not disrupt their lives,” Henderson said. “We want to serve the public better. I hope people will like this.”