NYC Says Mental Health 911 Calls Will Go to Trained Providers First, Not the Police

New York City just announced a new plan to redirect 911 calls away from the police as first responders when there is an underlying mental health issue involved. 

Mental professionals and social workers are often much better suited to respond to these issues than armed police officers. They use de-escalation techniques to reduce the threat of violence or self-harm, while making sure the person gets the care they need instead of ending up behind bars. The program is set to take off February 2021 in two underserved communities in the city.

Changing the Narrative on Mental Health

Currently, NYPD officers and FDNY Emergency Medical Services Technicians respond to nearly every 911 call placed in the city, “regardless of the severity of health needs, whether a crime is involved, or whether there is an imminent risk of violence,” according to a press release from the mayor’s office.

Having police respond to 911 calls when there is an underlying mental health issue as a factor can lead to unexpected and unnecessary violence on all sides of the incident at hand.

Such was the case with Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old black man who was shot and killed in front of his home in Philadelphia on October 26th. When he started having a manic episode, his mother called 911 for help. The police arrived on the scene to see Wallace waving a knife in the air. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, they shot Wallace in front of his mother.

The entire incident was recorded on video. Onscreen, someone yells repeatedly at Mr. Wallace to “put the knife down.” The camera points toward the ground as about a dozen shots are heard. After Mr. Wallace falls to the ground, his mother screams, and rushes to his body.

The shooting led to several nights of protests throughout the city.

According to Wallace’s father, his son struggled with mental health issues for years and was being treated with medication at the time of his death. “Why didn’t they use a Taser?” he said. “His mother was trying to defuse the situation.”

This is this kind of incident NYC is trying to avoid with its new 911 policy. Instead of sending the cops as the default response, new teams of mental health providers will be the leading responders for these kinds of calls. If there is a crime involved or someone is being threatened, the police will arrive alongside the mental health professionals. 

According to the mayor’s office, these providers have been trained in the latest de-escalation techniques, issues related to suicide, substance abuse, serious mental illness, as well as physical health problems, which can be exacerbated by or mask mental health problems.

Looking at the official press release, more than 65% of NYPD staff have now been trained in Crisis Intervention Team training, a “state-of-the-art approach that continues to improve the way officers recognize and respond to behavioral health problems experienced by people they encounter.”

Reaching Out During a Pandemic

2020 hasn’t exactly been a great year for mental health. Anxiety, depression, and stress are all on the rise as we continue to wade through this deadly pandemic. NYC was one of the hardest hit areas in the country and the city is still trying to recover.

Those suffering from mental health conditions are much more likely to be victims of violence or harm themselves than they are to harm others.

The mayor’s office says that one in five New Yorkers now struggles with a mental health condition.

Major Bill de Blasio says in the press release, “Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes. 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.”

The idea was modeled after similar crisis intervention programs that have been implemented in other cities, such as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon. Mental health professionals responded to over 24,000 911 calls in Eugene in 2019, requesting police assistance in just 150 cases.

While the town of Eugene, Oregon is not NYC, it’s clear that other major cities are trying to reduce the risk of mental health-related violence as well. If someone with a mental health condition needs emergency assistance, individuals should be able to call 911 without worrying about putting their loved ones at risk. It’s about being sensitive to the needs of people suffering from these kinds of conditions and responding with compassion instead of violence. 

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