Mental Health Crisis Teams Will Replace Cops in NYC Pilot Program

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Graphic Design by Andy Zurich via Flickr.

Starting in February 2021, New York City will have mental health experts — not police officers — take the lead in responding to some 911 calls in two precincts in “high-need areas” involving mental health emergencies.

Under existing protocols, 911 calls reporting someone experiencing emotional or mental distress are responded to by police officers and emergency-medical-services (EMS) responders from the fire department.

However, under this new pilot program announced Tuesday by Mayor Bill de Blasio, most of these calls will now be answered by social workers and mental health crisis workers employed by the city, the Wall Street Journal reports. 

New York Police  Department (NYPD) officers will only be included in the call response  when there is “a clear threat of violence.” 

Many advocates around the country have pushed for the reallocation of emergency responsibilities — especially as it relates to mental health services. 

In the past three years, at least 15 individuals experiencing debilitating mental health episodes have been shot and killed by NYPD officers, and calls to emergency dispatchers reporting what the NYPD terms EDPs — “emotionally disturbed persons” — have nearly doubled over the last decade, “rising every year and in every precinct,” according to New York Magazine.

Now, considering mental-health emergencies accounted for 171,490 911 calls in the city in 2019, Mayor de Blasio is trying to address this growing crisis — again. 

“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition,” the mayor told a press conference. “Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes.”

The mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, who spearheaded an earlier version of the program, also spoke at the conference.

“This is the first time in [New York’s] history that health professionals will be the default responders to mental health emergencies, an approach that is more compassionate and effective for better long term outcomes.”

The New York City plan is modeled on the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS)  program in Eugene, Or., where similar two-person teams, consisting of a medical professional and a crisis worker, respond to calls of mental health crises.

The goal is to help emotionally disturbed people, who are often individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses than can be serious if left untreated, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder.

It’s possible that if someone with a disorienting disorder has debilitating symptoms, they could become violent or act erratically when experiencing a crisis episode. 

In 2016, police were called to a Bronx apartment inhabited by Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old woman who was suffering from a schizophrenic episode. The responding sergeant convinced her to drop a pair of scissors she was holding, but he eventually shot and killed her after she grabbed a bat and stepped toward him. 

Neighbors were shocked at what happened, saying her mental illness was well-known. 

Stories like these are unfortunately not all that uncommon. A few weeks ago, Walter Wallace Jr., a Black 27-year-old, was fatally shot by police in Philadelphia after his family called 911 to request medical assistance and an ambulance to address his mental health — not armed officers.  

“When you come to a scene where somebody is in a mental crisis, and the only tool you have to deal with it is a gun … where are the proper tools for the job?” Shaka Johnson, the family’s lawyer, said at a press conference.

Pandemic Exacerbates Mental Health Issues

Fourteen percent of adult New Yorkers reported an unmet need for mental health services since the stay at home order was implemented, according to the latest “Mental Health in New York City” report.

Many of the risk factors for a mental health crisis episode — like feeling cut off from support systems, isolated, anxious, overwhelmed, and depressed — are all emotions those surveyed expressed feeling at alarming rates. 

Not only is this anecdotally expressed, but the mental health emergency department visits in hospitals across New York City increased by about 1,000 per week since the week of March 11, just before most of the city entered into a lockdown, according to the same Mental Health report. 

New Program Skepticism

This is not de Blasio’s first attempt at initiating a program like this, and others are skeptical that because of the failures of the past, this program will follow the same route if not done carefully. 

In 2018, de Blasio launched a task force whose goal was to improve and create a “comprehensive strategy” for addressing the city’s response to 911 calls involving a mental health emergency. It was spearheaded by the mayor and First Lady Chirlane McCray after NYPD officers fatally shot a man experiencing a mental health crisis that they believed was armed, the Wall Street Journal details. 

However, it seems that the program, ThriveNYC, didn’t seem like “a priority” to the administration, as a plan was never released after 180 days as promised, and the task force’s recommendations came nearly a year after the program’s inception. 

Advocates of the new pilot program announced yesterday are hopeful that this time around, things will change — but some believe it’s too ambitious too soon, according to ABC7 and CBS2

Patrick Lynch, president of the NYPD officer’s union said he knows that law enforcement cannot “single-handedly solve our city’s mental health disaster” but warned that this plan would not make the necessary changes. He argued that it fails “to address the root causes of mental health issues in the city.”   

Lynch added that the  EMS is already overtaxed, making it the default for non-violent situations related to mental health is going to further overwork the first responders. 

We have no confidence that this long-delayed plan will produce any better results [than ThriveNYC],” Lynch commented.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams also shared his thoughts about the initiative through  Twitter, saying that the already underpaid EMT staff will now have more calls to add to their workload without additional pay, making it “insult to injury.” 

Joe Giacalone, a retired NYPD Sergeant  and John Jay College of Criminal Justice adjunct professor, echoed the same sentiment, telling  CBS2, “It’s only going to take, unfortunately, one violent encounter where a social worker, EMS worker, somebody gets hurt, and then the police are going to have to go to every one of these calls anyway.”

NYPD officer’s union President Lynch said in order for any new program to work, “We need a complete overhaul of the rest of our mental-health care system, so that we can help people before they are in crisis, rather than just picking up the pieces afterward.”

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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