Orchard Park Police Lt. Joseph Ray checks in with people and families whose mental or emotional issues have required a police response.

Ray, recently promoted, sees problem-solving as an important service that police can provide, in part to free themselves from repeat calls from the same household. He has a master’s degree from Niagara University and volunteers for a hotline that officers in personal distress can call for a sympathetic ear.

Ray has been wearing police blues for 20 years, so he knows how police perceptions about the mentally ill can change over the course of a decades-long career. Here are his thoughts, delivered over a series of interviews, about the role of police in dealing with mentally ill people.

“It took me a long time to realize that the reason the person is doing what they are doing is not because they are just a criminal or they are just an [expletive] or that it’s their own fault, whatever – but that there’s a mental health issue, and if we can link them to the proper services, or help their family with the proper services, sometimes we can solve problems. If we can get them the right treatment, get them, in many cases, to accept there is a mental health issue and get them on the right track, we don’t have to fight with them and we don’t have to deal with them. They are getting what they need, and we don’t have to worry about it.

“The stigma that is attached to mental health issues – everyone deals with that stigma. The family who has a 16-year-old son and the doctor says, ‘I think your son is bipolar’ – they wouldn’t have a problem if the doctor said he has a broken arm, a brain tumor. But when they say ‘mental health,’ they don’t want to deal with it. Police officers don’t want to deal with people that have it because we’re cops, we’re not social workers.

“People in crisis, especially, there is a whole lot going on in their heads. There’s a lot of noise. If you go aggressive on a person like that, they can’t handle it. They just can’t deal with it. They are probably going to get aggressive back.

“Probably a third of the guys are on board in agreeing that mental health is a medical condition that needs proper treatment, that a person is not intentionally making irrational decisions most of the time – that there is a physical cause for that. There is a middle ground of officers who don’t really understand it, and they don’t want to understand it, because they don’t have to deal with it at home or anywhere else. But they know they can let me know, and if it wasn’t an emergency, they can just give me a copy of the complaint, and I will go check to see what’s going on.

“And then there are still a few guys who just think that these are people who want to be where they are, they are intentionally doing what they are doing, and any effort to try and solve the problem – giving them the National Alliance on Mental Illness handbook, referring their family to something, suggesting mental health court to the judge rather than just slam them with the charges – to them, that’s just stupid. It’s mollycoddling. They think people are taking advantage of the system, or whatever.

“So there still are people who can be antagonistic: ‘Why is this 17-year-old kid that we have been chasing around for four years still a problem? We keep arresting him. Mom bails him out ...’

“Have a little empathy, folks. Mom loves her son. Mom needs to call the police because he is bigger than her, and she is afraid he or she is going to get hurt. We have to help. She is calling us for help. The kid clearly needs help. If we show up and start berating parents, and we are berating the rest of the family – ‘Why do you let him be like this?’ – we are getting frustrated.

“You can only pack so much into a police academy. The only thing you really get in the academy is recognizing a crazy person, knowing you can take them to the hospital under the mental health law, and that it’s probably the most dangerous call you’ll ever have.

“With the actual individual, you have to be careful, you have to be safe, but you can very often avoid a physical confrontation if you slow down. Let the person rant and rave. I’ve got body armor. If he wants to call me a pig, I don’t have to jump on him because he insulted me. If he’s not being physically dangerous, take that extra five minutes. Let someone scream and yell. They are going to get a sore throat. I don’t yell back. Some people, even if I will completely win the fight, they would just love to get in a fight with me. I am not going to let them have that.

“If it’s a situation where it’s a serious offense going on, we have to arrest. But even then, if I have arrested this person, do I need to get them to the Holding Center? Or should they be at Erie County Medical Center? If I have to give them an appearance ticket and take them to ECMC, that’s not a bad outcome.

“If your kid has cancer, there is going to be a benefit at the fire hall and posters everywhere. If your 20-year-old son comes home from college because he’s schizophrenic and got arrested for something stupid, and now he’s home and needs help for his medical condition, you are not going to have a fundraiser at the fire hall. You are not going to tell your neighbors. You are not going to tell half your family.

“That’s pressure alone – that you cannot talk to anyone about it, you don’t know what’s available and you are afraid to ask. Once they get hold of NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) and find there are other families in the same boat. … Things like that are immensely helpful for families. I have a family where – in what I would call a success story for me – mom and dad now go to NAMI meetings. If you can get three or four families into a room, those things are huge.”