New York police will stay away from many mental health crisis calls starting this spring and social workers will instead respond in parts of north Manhattan, an official told lawmakers Monday.
The testing program will begin in three police stations in Harlem and East Harlem, which totaled more than 7,400 mental health-related emergency calls over the past year, said Susan Herman, who leads a wide-ranging urban mentality health initiative called ThriveNYC.
The details fleshed out a plan that the city set out in detail in November to prevent psychiatric crises from escalating into confrontation and to provide people with more health-oriented help.
The experiment “will be a crucial step forward in the city’s commitment to treating mental health crises as public health issues rather than public safety issues,” Herman told a city council committee. She said the city hoped to get the program city-wide as soon as possible.
In practice, some important details remain to be seen, including how real-time decisions will be made about when to call the police – which will continue to respond to calls with a gun or “imminent risk of harm”. And the union that represents the city’s EMTs says the city needs to make sure it is safe before proceeding.
Mental health advocates welcomed the idea but expressed some reservations about the city’s structure.
“Trying to get away from the police force as first responders to a mental health crisis is a step in the right direction,” said Cal Hedigan, CEO of a mental health organization called Community Access. However, she would like the response teams to include people who are mentally ill and trained to help others.
Otherwise, “you run the risk of replacing a faulty system with another that does not contain an important element,” said Hedigan.
Across the country, calls were made to change the way authorities respond to people in need. In cases like that of Daniel Prude, a black man who died after Rochester police pulled an anti-spit hood over his head and held him to the ground in March of a mental crisis. That month, a 9-year-old black girl was handcuffed and sprayed with pepper after police responded to a home situation called by her mother and the girl became emotional.
Several other US cities, including Denver and San Francisco, recently replaced the police force or planned to replace them with mental health professionals in certain situations. Eugene, Oregon, has had one for decades.
In New York City, police and ambulance workers responded to all 154,000 calls to 911 for help with behavioral medicine last year. Almost half ended up being hospitalized; less than 1 in 100 resulted in arrests, police officers told the council committee.
The new testing program will dispatch teams of two fire rescue workers and one social worker each to be available 16 hours a day, Herman said.
The New York Police Department is working with ThriveNYC “to ensure the appropriate agency is responding to people in a mental health crisis,” police spokesman Al Baker said in a statement.
Herman said the hiring for the new program was underway and it would begin once the needed staff were hired and trained.
The fire brigade has expressed its support for the test program and on Monday refused to comment on it.
However, Oren Barzilay, the head of the EMT union, or Local 2507 for short, said, “Before a plan is implemented, we must ensure the safety of our workforce.”