SENECA FALLS — Police Chief Stu Peenstra admits having reservations about a program for police to deal with mental health situations when it started a year or so ago.

He doesn’t anymore.

“I have to admit I was a little skeptical about this program at first but it has worked out great,” he said. “It’s an important issue nationally and locally.”

The local police department’s efforts got a recent boost when the state Senate-sponsored Mobile Access Program provided funding for three iPads. They will be used by officers to remotely connect those in crisis to mental health professionals.

Peenstra credited state Sen. Pam Helming, who helped get the funding. The program also includes the Institute for Police, Mental Health & Community Collaboration, the state Office of Mental Health, the Seneca County Community Counseling Center, and the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP) at Clifton Springs Hospital & Clinic.

“They saw the value in this project and helped get additional funding,” Peenstra said.

When a Seneca Falls officer responds to a mental health crisis, a secure video conference chat — using the iPad — allows CPEP staff to evaluate the patient. That can result in police taking the person to the hospital or letting them stay home with referrals for services.

Before the mobile access program, Peenstra said people who showed signs of being in crisis were always taken to the hospital for evaluation — and in many cases released that day.

Peenstra said the program has reduced law enforcement transports to the hospital by more than 80 percent.

Other benefits include cutting the costs of a hospital visit for the patient, the hospital or taxpayers, and freeing up emergency room space used in the past for mental health consults. Treatment plans can also be formed remotely for people who stay at home, instead of a blanket treatment used in the past.

Peenstra and mental health professionals said remote evaluations are not used for everyone and people may still require a transport for an acute mental health case.

Peenstra added that when the program first started locally, funds were not available for each police agency and tablets were provided mainly to sheriff’s offices and larger agencies. He used SFPD funds to buy a tablet and dataline last year.

With the three new tablets, Peenstra said the one he bought last year can be taken out of service and the associated cost eliminated. The three SFPD officers (one sergeant and two patrol officers) on each shift will have a tablet for their use.

“The importance of that is when we only had one iPad, if that officer was tied up an another case the response time was longer,” he said. “If each car has its own iPad, we can address the mental health situation more quickly. It can be an awkward situation with the officer and the person in need if it takes a long time to get the iPad there.”

Earlier this year, the SFPD was recognized for its work with the county-wide Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), a collaboration between law enforcement and mental health services. Peenstra was an initial member of the CIT core implementation team in the county and has since sent numerous officers — including himself — to crisis intervention training.

One member of the SFPD is a certified CIT course instructor.

“I hope to have all our officers CIT trained by the end of the year,” Peenstra said.