BUFFALO, N.Y. (WBEN) – There is a renewed scrutiny against the Buffalo Police Department after a mental health incident last Friday.
Police last Friday used their BolaWrap, a device that shoots a wire which wraps around a person to subdue them, on a woman near Langfield Homes. The woman allegedly jumped from a second-floor window and wielded scissors. Police said she was only wearing a t-shirt in the snow and was at risk of becoming hypothermic.
There’s criticism of the department over using the non-lethal technology and for the actions they took that day.
“What some people would consider a success we would consider an abysmal failure,” Victoria Ross, Executive Director at the Western New York Peace Center, said about the police department’s Behavioral Health Team.
Kareema Morris, who is also part of the WNY Peace Center, witnessed the incident on Friday. She claims there was only one mental health professional amid multiple uniformed police officer. Approximately 20 minutes after she got to the scene, Morris claimed more officers showed up while the woman was in crisis.
“They say she had jumped out of a window and been out there for two hours prior to the police coming,” Morris said. “The entire time, I never saw any interaction with the mental health professional and never heard her voice.”
Morris also claimed that after the woman was detained by police, she was not given blankets or other types of clothing to warm her up.
“You could see ice between her toes,” Morris said. “My main concern was there was no voice of help. There was no one talking her down.
There was no confirming or reassuring that everything was going to be okay.
Even if the person was maybe on Facetime, if you had a bullhorn or something just reassuring…anything consoling to help for the mental health portion, none of that was present at the time.”
Nicolalita Rodriguez, a trauma therapist, said she was outraged about the police department using BolaWrap during a mental health crisis.
“Police should not be first responders to mental health calls,” Rodriguez said. “(BolaWrap) is not only inhumane but potentially traumatizing, especially in the midst of a mental health crisis. We are continuing to use band-aid approaches that only cause more long-term harm and trauma to our communities as solutions to problems that are systemic.”
Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo told WBEN the equipment was appropriate given the circumstances.
“You had an individual who was not properly dressed for the weather, had been exposed to the elements for over an hour-and-a-half, who had spoken with not only police officers but a social worker,” Rinaldo said. “They spoke to this person for a great length and were unable to get the person to put down a weapon as well as to get inside of a police vehicle so they could be evaluated. A decision had to be made that this situation needed to be ended and ended quickly. The BolaWrap did just that.”
Among the other issues that activists had with the incident was the presence of police officers, which they believe escalated the situation.
“Mental health professionals that go out and deal with individuals…they are the ones that call for police to assist them in situations where there is a danger of injury or danger of an assault or the use of a weapon against themselves or somebody else,” Rinaldo said. “Removing police completely is not a viable option.”
Rinaldo said the mental health professional did try to help the woman but to no avail.
“To say that the presence of police will never be needed in a mental health crisis is just not realistic and does not factor in all the different circumstances that can occur when trying to resolve these situations,” Rinaldo said.
Amid calls nationwide for police reform, Buffalo has taken steps. This includes the purchase of stun guns for its officers, the passage of “Cariol’s Law”, and other reforms which also included a trial run of the BolaWrap.
Still, activists don’t believe enough is being done.
“These non-lethal weapons aren’t needed if people reach out in other ways that are building trust and building solidarity to de-escalate the situation,” Ross said. “They never were able to. The mere presence in their uniforms and their arms is not going to de-escalate.”
“There’s not much they can do right now,” Amy Cross-Viola of Agents of Change WNY said while adding there should be a 20% reallocation of their budget to focus on mental health.
Rinaldo said officers are receptive to new technologies and training that will make their jobs safer, but said change will not happen overnight.
“It does not happen in a vacuum,” Rinaldo said. “There is a lot of training required. There is a lot of review and analysis of how these reforms have affected the department and affected the job. That is something we look at on a daily basis to make sure the technology we’ve invested in as well as the training programs will pay a dividend in the end.”