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Police use BolaWrap on mental health call as controversy persists

Buffalo News - 2/22/2021

Feb. 21—It didn't take long for Buffalo police to recognize the need for sensitivity as they pulled up to 143 Langfield Drive in the Kenfield-Langfield housing project at 12:17 p.m. Friday.

They immediately encountered their subject — who police said is a transgender woman — threatening to jump from the building's second floor, brandishing scissors and acting incoherently. Despite the freezing temperatures, she was clad in only a T-shirt.

A year ago, before reforms followed George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police, officers might have reacted differently. They might have opted to more forcefully subdue an incoherent person that they deemed unstable.

On Friday, however, police summoned the city's Behavioral Health Team, which includes social workers and crisis specialists, for counseling. And for the first time ever, they subdued their subject with a BolaWrap, a non-lethal lasso type device that essentially tackles someone without using a gun or Taser.

"It works," was the assessment of Capt. Jeff Rinaldo, Buffalo Police Department spokesman.

Not everyone agrees. At least one member of the Buffalo Police Advisory Board said that the incident represents a classic case of the need for police to back off and let mental health professionals take over. De'Jon Hall, an ex-officio member of the board that recently formulated new guidelines for mental health situations, said that the subject's reluctance to enter a police car throughout the incident demonstrated the need for even more discretion.

"It goes to what we've been saying," Hall said Sunday. "The community has a deep distrust of police, especially Buffalo police. And it is why the Police Advisory Board has called for removing police from such calls."

In addition, Hall questioned deployment of the BolaWrap on a naked person. He wondered if the subdued person had been injured in any way.

"The community is against the BolaWrap because we don't need any more weapons," he said. "The fact of the matter is, there are safer and more harm-reductive methods."

The city announced in October that it would start a six-month BolaWrap pilot program for the Behavioral Health Team to asses the technology's effectiveness in keeping residents and officers safe. In its recommendation for the city to adopt a Mental Health Diversion Program, the Advisory Board noted that Behavioral Health Team officers would be trained in crisis intervention with behavioral health clinicians.

"A diversion program would place the process of working with mentally ill individuals in need of assistance in the hands of professionals with extensive professional training and experience needed to successfully attempt de-escalation and link with long-term services," according to the Advisory Board's report.

Rinaldo said that is exactly what happened at Friday's housing project scene. Police summoned its new team of mental health professionals, he said, to handle a person that they determined was "in a mental health crisis ... and obviously not dressed for the weather."

The team attempted to reason with their scissors-armed subject for more than an hour, Rinaldo said, before using the BolaWrap.

"It was enough to get her down on the ground," he said, noting that police and mental health professionals were interacting with one another throughout the standoff. Both elements of the Behavioral Health Team — police and clinicians — were on hand to assist the other, he said.

"In a case like this, time is of the essence," Rinaldo said, adding that officers determined that the BolaWrap was the fastest and safest way to get the person to the hospital.

"The goal is is to try to prevent any escalation to the point of violence," he said. "The longer the delay, the greater the chance the situation will go south."

Rinaldo acknowledged that some people are concerned about the BolaWrap's "optics."

"The optics here a lot better than shooting someone," he said.

Still, Hall said police continue to miss the point that their subject Friday at Kenfield-Langfield did not trust the police, and as a result, resisted getting into a police car.

"Having folks in uniform show up and try to get her into a police car is not the way to calm someone down," he said.

"I would question that a police presence was inappropriate overall in this case," he added, adding that the presence of mental health counselors was a "good thing."

"But the police presence was unfortunate," he said, "the car and all it signifies heightens the situation."

Police said they took their subject to Erie County Medical Center for evaluation, but provided no other details, citing mental health privacy provisions.


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