NYC to begin using mental health teams for some non-violent emergency calls

In this image taken from police body camera video provided by Roth and Roth LLP, a Rochester police officer puts a hood over the head of Daniel Prude, on March 23, 2020, in Rochester, N.Y. Video of Prude, a Black man who had run naked through the streets of the western New York city, died of asphyxiation after a group of police officers put a hood over his head, then pressed his face into the pavement for two minutes, according to video and records released Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2020, by his family. Prude died March 30 after he was taken off life support, seven days after the encounter with police in Rochester. (Rochester Police via Roth and Roth LLP via AP)

In a year that has seen a widespread rethinking of policing tactics, the largest department in the United States is preparing to launch a new program that deploys teams of mental health professionals, social workers and EMTs to some emergency calls, instead of the police.

One month ago, on April 26th, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio formally announced the mental health response program for the new fiscal year, where the New York City Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services, and mental health professionals will work together to answer non-violent mental health crisis calls.

The pilot program was mentioned for the first time in November of 2020, but de Blasio provided more details while presenting his executive budget for the fiscal year 2022 at a news conference. The program began in three Harlem and East Harlem police precincts. These three precincts combined had 7,400 mental health-related 911 calls last year which is the highest in the city, according to Susan Herman, a former member of the NYPD and the mayor’s top advisor on issues related to policing and mental health. 

“If a family is in crisis and it’s not a situation involving violence we are going to send civilians to address those calls,” de Blasio said during the press conference regarding the fiscal year budget. Funding of $112 million is being set aside for this new program, which is the largest new mental health expenditure in the $98.6 billion spending plan of the budget for the 2022 fiscal year, according to The New York Post.

Adolfo Polanco, 27, has been an emergency medical technician for a total of 7 years, but has been an EMT with the FDNY for three and a half years. Polanco believes this program would be welcome in some communities, but could also pose a safety risk for the social workers and EMTs. 

“I think that having social workers and EMTs can help provide care that is less intimidating than when a police officer is around. I’m sure people get nervous, anxious and angry when talking with one. We are there to help provide a level of de-escalation that should be able to help patients. It’s in the hopes that they would be less prone to accessing those negative emotions or experiences,” Polanco said.

“When we show up on the scene to a patient who is acting erratic and violent, we cannot and should not immediately assume that the situation is a mental illness, but a medical one,” Polanco continued. “Once we rule out all those possibilities, then we start winding down to the occasion pertaining to mental illness.”

At the start of the pilot program, special teams will be sent to 911 calls for mental health episodes that are recognized as “safe.”  Police officers will still respond to calls that are considered dangerous and the distinction will be based on whether a person has a weapon or portrays violent behavior. 

The program will require teams of two Fire Department EMTs and one social worker that will be available for 16 hours a day, according to Herman. Herman told the Associated Press that hiring and training have begun for the spring and summer roll out.

One of the Polanco’s concerns is what adequate protection would look like for the responding EMTs and social workers. 

There are occasions where a mental health call is really considered a physiological distress call,” Polanco said. “People with diabetes who present with low blood sugar are disoriented, look ill, and many times become violent because they are semi-conscious,” Polanco said. “That’s the easiest thing the brain can resort to.” 

Miguel Rodriguez is a 29-year-old, New York City licensed social worker who is currently in his second year of his Ph.D. in social work. Born in Queens and raised in the Bronx, Rodriguez has been involved in social and community work since he was 15 years old. He primarily focused on giving back to his community by catering to people of color in the Bronx, but also in Brooklyn and Queens.

“If we’re thinking about social workers responding to a mental health crisis, I’m thinking that social workers and mental health counselors might be best equipped because this is what we learned to do,” Rodriguez said. “I do think there is a nuance of proper compensation and safety that social workers have in terms of asking ourselves ‘If I show up to this house and someone is having a crisis, am I gonna get hurt?’

“But we ask this question every day in our practice. It happens in schools, and nursing homes,” said Rodriguez. 

Circumstances like the death of Daniel Prude and the detaining and pepper-spraying of a 9-year-old girl in Rochester have encouraged many activists to demand change in the way authorities approach a mental health crisis. 

Rodriguez has been in the process of writing a dissertation that focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline and the policies that place a strong emphasis on the presence of police. 

“The institution of policing and the officers themselves don’t offer adequate training on de-escalating a situation where a person is navigating a mental health crisis,” said Rodriguez. It’s like going to the hospital with the expectation that you’re going to fix your car.” 

“The service that they offer at the hospital is not for your car,” Rodriguez said. “It would be weird that you call your mechanic but a pediatrician showed up and said ‘Hey I’m here to help you with the car.’”

According to the New York Department of Health, every year, more than one in five New Yorkers has symptoms of a mental disorder and one in ten adults and children experience mental health challenges that affect their ability to perform daily functions in their work, family and school life. 

“I would like to see how this pilot program might take place in schools where we’re transitioning out school safety agents and transitioning in more social workers, mental health clinicians and more restorative justice coordinators. It presents transformative approaches but like any pilot program,” Rodriguez said.

The New York State Health Foundation found that 37 percent of adult New Yorkers in October 2020 had poor mental health conditions during the pandemic. One of the key findings showed that New Yorkers of color generally reported the highest rates of poor mental health throughout the survey period. In October 2020, 42 percent of Hispanic and 39 percent of Black New Yorkers reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in the prior week. They also found that although all age groups were affected, young adult New Yorkers — ages 18-34 years of age — reported the highest rates of poor mental health in October 2020, at 49 percent. 

Low-income New Yorkers experienced the highest rates of poor mental health across the survey period, compared with all other income groups. Reported symptoms of anxiety or depression increased across all income brackets from May to October 2020. Lastly, they found that in October 2020, nearly half of New Yorkers — 47 percent — in households that lost employment income since the start of the pandemic reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression in the prior week. This rate is 1.7 time higher than among households that did not experience income loss.