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NYPD to be replaced for 911 mental health calls in pilot program

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A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to dismantling its police department after the death of George Floyd.

USA TODAY

NEW YORK — New York City plans to launch a pilot program in two neighborhoods that will replace NYPD officers for most 911 calls for mental health emergencies with a team of mental health and crisis professionals.

The new procedure is set to go into effect early next year in two “high-need” communities in New York City that are still being selected based on the number of 911 calls for mental health crises.

“This is the first time in our history that health professionals will be the default responders to mental health emergencies,” New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray said Tuesday as she announced the policy alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio and city health officials.

“Treating mental health crises as mental health challenges, and not public safety ones, is the modern and most appropriate approach,” she added.

There were more than 170,000 mental health calls to 911 in New York City last year and the “majority concerned people who just needed help” with “no indication of violence at all,” McCray said.

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Teams responding to these types of calls will consist of an EMS health care professional as well as a mental health crisis worker. NYPD officers will not be among the default first responders in these two neighborhoods as it previously had been.

In cases where someone is reported to have a weapon or violent behavior, an NYPD officer will be dispatched, too, but the health professionals will “be in charge of coordinating the effort,” McCray said.

Susan Herman, director of ThriveNYC, said a previous pilot program consisting of NYPD officers and mental health workers responding to these kinds of 911 calls is on hold while the city sees if the “even more health-centered approach to these kinds of mental health emergencies would be successful.”

The aim is for mental health emergencies to be de-escalated with immediate care provided and then to connect the person who is having the crisis with the appropriate professionals for long term health care, McCray said.

“When it’s not done properly, when these people are not encountered and handled properly, it can be traumatizing for them,” she added. “We do not want to make a bad situation worse for anyone.”

Laura Kavanagh, first deputy commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, said training for the EMS teams and social workers will begin immediately for the rollout to begin in February. The goal is for the program eventually to expand across the city, de Blasio added.

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“The vast majority of cases you’re talking about you have an opportunity for a peaceful outcome with a health-centered approach, and that’s what we are focusing on here. Obviously if you have proven professional addressing people, they’re going to be best able to get to a good outcome,” de Blasio said. 

Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said NYPD, the nation’s largest police department, was looking forward to participating in the program. “Our officers applaud the intervention by health professionals in these non violent cases and as always stand ready to assist.”

Earlier this year, a number of high-profile incidents drew national attention to police departments’ responses to people having mental health crises.

In March in Rochester, Daniel Prude was experiencing a mental health crisis when police responding to a 911 call pinned him to the ground and handcuffed him. Officers put a hood over his head and Prude suffocated to death.

Nicolas Chavez was also “having a mental breakdown” in Houston when he was shot 21 times, with 28 officers on the scene in April. A 13-year-old in Utah who has autism was injured in September when officers shot him while he was having an episode.

In Philadelphia, Walter Wallace Jr. was fatally shot by police in October. His family says they called 911 looking for an ambulance because Wallace had mental illness and had been taking lithium. Officers yelled at Wallace to drop a knife.

New York City is not alone in its plans to have mental health workers respond to these types of calls, rather than police officers, as other cities around the country have launched similar initiatives.

Advocates calling for police reforms have long pushed for mental health care workers to play a greater role in responding to emergency calls. Many activists who called to “defund the police” earlier this summer in the wake of racial justice unrest have also backed similar policies.

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The New York City program is modeled off one established in Eugene, Oregon, where similar two-person teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker respond to calls of mental health crises through a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS).

Focusing on harm reduction, the CAHOOTS program responds to a variety of mental health crises and was launched by the White Bird Clinic in the city in 1989. Responders don’t carry weapons, and among the roughly 24,000 calls CAHOOTS received last year, teams requested police backup only 150 times, according to the program.

Tim Black, the director of Consulting at White Bird Clinic/ CAHOOTS, called the New York program “an opportunity for New Yorkers to bring to their communities a compassionate response built around support, stabilization, and prevention rather than enforcement.”

“We should be asking ourselves why it is that law enforcement has become the default system to handle situations related to mental health, addiction, poverty, and homelessness, and what public safety should really mean for our most vulnerable neighbors,” Black said.

Contributing: Grace Hauck

Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

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