In recent years, we’ve seen countless tragedies result from the response by police officers to people suffering a mental health crisis. New York City is set to launch a pilot program next year that will see healthcare professionals responding to these cases instead of the New York Police Department.
NBC New York reports that the program will launch in February 2021 in two high-need communities. The communities are still in the process of being selected, with the program looking through data to find the cities with the highest number of 911 calls related to mental health crises. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has called the program a “major innovation,” and cites the ongoing pandemic for its creation.
“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” de Blasio said at a press conference Tuesday, NBC reports. “For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need.”
In recent months, we’ve seen police responses to mental crises turn fatal. In Rochester, N.Y., Daniel Prude died from asphyxiation after police officers put a spit hood on him and pinned his head to the ground while he was completely naked. His brother called 911 because Prude was suffering from a crisis and simply needed help.
“I placed a phone call for my brother to get help. Not for my brother to get lynched,” Joe Prude said in September during a news conference. “How did you see him and not directly say, ‘The man is defenseless, buck naked on the ground. He’s cuffed up already. Come on.’ How many more brothers gotta die for society to understand that this needs to stop?”
The program will involve the creation of new 911 EMS Mental Health Teams that will be composed of EMS health professionals and a mental health crisis worker. While the program isn’t set to launch until next year, the training period has already begun for the new teams. The New York Fire Department will be one of the head agencies responsible for overseeing the program, alongside Health + Hospitals, and NYC Well.
“The FDNY takes great pride in helping to lead the way in the mayor’s new initiative,” FDNY First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said during the press conference. “There is a mental health crisis in this country. Here in New York City part of the remedy to this crisis is how we respond to and treat the patients with mental illness.”
While the NYPD will no longer be the default response for non-violent mental health calls, they will still be involved in the program. In instances where someone suffering from a mental health crisis is reported to have a weapon or has a history of violence, an NYPD officer will be deployed alongside the team, according to USA Today. First Lady Chirlane McCray noted that in these instances the health care professionals would still “be in charge of coordinating the effort.”
McCray also noted that of the 170,000 911 calls that were placed in the city last year, a large majority of them were related to mental health. De Blasio stated that if the program proves successful, he hopes to expand it to more communities in the city.
“Our goal overall is to prevent these crises from happening, but when they do, we want to provide better and more compassionate support,” McCray said. “That’s why we have retrained tens of thousands of NYPD officers in crisis intervention, helping them to better recognize signs of emotional distress and how to de-escalate tense situations. With these mental health teams, we will test the model where we relieve police officers of those responsibilities, which in many cases, they should have never been asked to shoulder.”
Nationwide, cities have launched similar programs to the one in New York. In Denver, a program was launched in June that sends mental health professionals to respond to people who are in crisis and attempts to provide them with help and essential services. Efforts are currently underway in Los Angeles to launch a pilot program that would also create a new task force to respond to non-violent 911 calls.