Activists don’t just want justice for Judson Albahm’s killing. They want change.
Lucy Messineo-Witt | Asst. Photo Editor
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The Syracuse community watched Judson Albahm grow up.
His father owned several shops in the city, and residents knew him through his childhood and into his teenage years, said Hasahn Bloodworth, the founder of Rebirth SYR, a local activist group.
Police officers from multiple agencies shot and killed Albahm, who was having a mental health crisis, after he allegedly pulled out a fake gun. He was 17 years old.
“This could’ve been my son going through one of his episodes,” said Bloodworth, whose son has autism. “I just went about it like it was my own, and we have to take care of our own.”
After Albahm’s death in early March, Rebirth SYR pledged to march for 40 days to honor him and continue to seek justice. Activists and experts said police departments across the country need to improve their responses to people experiencing mental health crises and allocate more funding for support resources.
Renee Binder, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco and the founder of UCSF’s Psychiatry and the Law Program, said police need to be able to recognize when a person is experiencing a mental health crisis. People in crisis aren’t necessarily trying to resist arrest or threaten those around them, she said.
Binder recommended police officers receive crisis intervention training so officers can learn how to de-escalate situations and better understand what a person might be going through.
“Police can trigger a lot of reactions in people, especially people who have had negative interactions with police,” Binder said. Officers need to recognize that a person may be agitated and unresponsive because they are experiencing delusions — not because they’re resisting arrest, she said.
The Syracuse Common Council recently passed the Syracuse Reform and Reinvention Plan, which outlines steps to reform the Syracuse Police Department’s hiring process, response and community outreach, among other changes.
As part of the plan, SPD will expand its existing crisis intervention training plan to include 25% of the force and train all new cadets. The mayor’s office also said it was willing to redirect resources towards departments that are better equipped than police to handle some situations.
Approximately 12% of the Onondaga Sheriff’s Office patrol deputies are trained and certified as crisis intervention officers, said Sgt. Jon Seeber, public information officer for the sheriff’s office. The department anticipates that 15 deputies will attend training and become certified next month as members of the department’s Crisis Intervention Team, he said.
Some cases should not include a police response at all, Binder said. Some police departments across the country have a system that determines if police are needed. If not, a team of trained mental health professionals responds instead.
Prior to Albahm’s death, his mother called psychiatric workers to help her son at their Jamesville residence. Albahm then left his home, so his mother called 911 for additional help.
When police officers arrived at the scene, St. Joseph’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Mobile Crisis Outreach Team was already there. Dispatchers had warned officers that Judson had a history of mental illness. Although the exact timeline is unclear, four officers eventually fired at Albahm after he allegedly pointed a replica handgun at them.
“When you’re responding to a mental health call, you want to be avoiding hospitalization, avoiding arrest and avoiding someone getting hurt,” said Brandon Hollie, a doctoral student in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Syracuse University.
Hollie is also the regional program director for short-term crisis respite programs with Liberty Resources, a nonprofit behavioral health and social service agency. The person responding to a mental health call should be able to calm the person down without using force, he said.
The way a person speaks to someone experiencing a mental health crisis is often one of the most important parts of de-escalation, Hollie said. Responders should use a calm, soothing voice, but police officers often use firm, threatening language instead, he said.
The Common Council’s plan also elaborates on alternatives to policing models that the city is looking into, focusing on models for 911 response.
But Hollie and Binder said preventing tragedies such as Albahm’s death should begin before the police are called.
Cities should reallocate and increase funding for mental health resources so people with mental health issues can get the help they need, Binder said.
Hollie suggested implementing a 24-hour mobile crisis team so people will always have access to mental health care, especially if it is difficult for them to go to a therapist’s office. He also said more funding should go toward increasing funds for culturally competent therapists and more mental health professionals in marginalized communities.
“The solution is way before they ever have contact with police,” Binder said. “That’s in getting people treatment, getting them on their medication, getting family involved, having coordination with mental health services that include mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, housing, food, relationships.”
Bloodworth and Kayla Johnson, another member of Rebirth SYR, said many police officers in Syracuse don’t know how to handle situations such as Albahm’s, and that the city is not doing enough to improve responses to mental health crises.
She said SPD’s reform plan does not adequately address activists’ demands for policing. Last summer, a coalition of 14 advocacy groups, including Last Chance for Change and Black Lives Matter Syracuse, presented nine demands to reform SPD as part of the People’s Agenda for Policing.
“It’s our boots on the ground,” Johnson said. “We’re in the community the most. The input really has to come from the people who are in the community the absolute most. They really know the core issues and the core things that are going on and what people are having trouble with.”
Bloodworth also encouraged young people and members of the SU community to show support for Rebirth SYR and other local advocacy groups.
Although Albahm was not the first person in Syracuse or across the country to be killed by police, Bloodworth said his death hits even harder given his age.
“No parent should ever have to bury their child,” Bloodworth said. “These kids are the future. He could’ve been the next doctor, the next lawyer, the next police chief. Anything he could’ve been.”
Published on April 7, 2021 at 11:40 pm