NYC Public Advocate Proposes Mental Health Crisis Plan

New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams released a proposal on September 25 to reform how residents make emergency calls seeking assistance for people in a mental health crisis.

Williams’ plan comes in response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failure to act on long-promised proposals to address the city’s emergency response system following the deaths of 15 people who were struggling with mental health during encounters with police since 2015. The proposal argued the deaths of those 15 individuals is evidence that the City’s current approach is a failure.

“In defaulting to a law enforcement response to mental health crises, the City applies the lens of criminality to what is first and foremost a health issue,” the plan stated. “In order to rectify this pressing issue, New York City must address mental health crises with public health solutions.”

The new plan would establish a new emergency phone number and dispatch system separate from 911, according to The City. Williams noted the city must focus on providing those in crisis with social welfare services provided by social/crisis workers, medics, and mental health professionals, not law enforcement officers.

“The best answer right now is to make sure there is a better system to help emotionally disturbed people… long before there is a need to call someone for acute problems,” Williams told The New York Daily News.

He continued: “We need to create a better system in the city to do that. Right now we don’t have that to the extent people are languishing.”

Williams called on the city to ensure police officers receive Crisis Intervention Training (CIT).

In 2015, amid a surge in 911 calls involving individuals described to police as emotionally disturbed persons (EDPs), de Blasio promised in 2015 to quickly train most of the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) 36,000 uniformed officers to deal with those situations. However, as of March 2019, only 32 percent of NYPD officers have received training, The City reported.

The city has experienced a rising number of 911 calls involving EDPs. Those class surged from 97,132 in 2009 to 179,569 in 2018.

In April 2018, three years after de Blasio’s promised reforms, 34-year-old Saheed Vassell was shot by police officers after waving a piece of pipe officers mistook for a weapon, according to The City. In response, de Blasio established a task force and again promised reforms on how police responded to these encounters within 180 days.

“However, more than 500 days after its creation, this Task Force failed to present a report and propose recommendations,” Williams noted in his plan. “This inaction helps keep the city at risk for even more tragedies. Since the Task Force was convened, two additional New Yorkers have died.”

The City reported that City Hall officials initially claimed that the reforms would be released this week. However, on September 25, the mayor’s press secretary Freddi Goldstein declined to tell the news organization when the office would release them.

The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment on Williams’ proposal.

Williams proposed expedited training for all officers of the NYPD, as well as establishing “a model for non-police response to non-criminal emergencies” that involve individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. His plan references the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Oregon that is administered by the community group White Bird Clinic.

Working with police departments, the program provides mental health resources and can respond to cases of crisis independent of law enforcement. CAHOOTS teams can be dispatched through the 911 system and through an alternative dispatch line designed for non-emergency mental health situations.

“Having this line allows for people experiencing mental health crises or those around them to feel comfortable calling for response to get needed services, while knowing that it won’t initiate a full-blown police response that could escalate the situation or criminalize the person in crisis,” Williams wrote.

The city currently has 24 mobile crisis teams that pair officers with mental health professionals. However, the mobile crisis teams are not linked into the 911 dispatch system.

“This results in the city not using this crucial resource when they are most needed,” Williams wrote in his plan. He then suggested the city loop those teams into the 911 dispatch as well as connect them to nonprofits to increase the number of trained professionals available.

Along with additional training and non-police responses, Williams also suggested additional funding for services including “respite care centers, mental health urgent care centers, drop in centers for those with mental health concerns, and safe havens for people with mental health concerns.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.