Teams of mental health professionals and EMS staff will respond to 911 mental health calls instead of police officers under a new trial program, Mayor de Blasio announced Tuesday.
Without providing key details such as when the program will start and where it will take place, Hizzoner and First Lady Chirlane McCray promised “a major innovation” in how the city handles mental health and policing.
“Helping people in a time of crisis with a new approach … this is a big change in how things are done,” de Blasio said at a press conference.
Under the new pilot program, special teams will be sent to 911 calls for mental health episodes deemed safe. Cops will still respond to calls that are considered dangerous.
The distinction will be based on whether a person has a weapon or exhibits violent behavior, McCray said, though she added that the mental health professional will still be “in charge” in cases where an NYPD officer comes along.
The program will start sometime in the next few months, according to McCray, who’s made mental health a top priority during her time as first lady.
It will begin in two neighborhoods that she did not specify beyond saying they will be “high-needs” areas.
“Our goal overall is to prevent these crises from happening, but when they do, we want to provide better and more compassionate support,” said McCray, noting that the city fielded more than 170,000 mental health-related 911 calls last year.
Oren Barzilay, president of EMS Local 2507, voiced tentative support for the new plan.
“The Board of EMS Local 2507 is willing to begin discussions ... but let’s be clear,” he said in a statement. “We must have a full seat and voice at the table, along with significant discussions about safety and security for our members, as well as fair compensation for the new and extraordinary risks they are being asked to take.”
The new program comes as the de Blasio administration has struggled to reform NYPD practices after years of headlines of police responding to mental health crises with deadly force.
Previous efforts have included “Crisis Intervention Training” for thousands of officers to teach them to de-escalate tense situations — though the city recently paused the program amid the COVID outbreak.
“The challenge is too often, what we see is when police are responding, they tend to escalate the situation rather than de-escalate the situation,” Jeffrey Coots of John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the Daily News.
Pointing to other police departments that have used mental health professionals instead of cops, Coots said: “It’s very successful in terms of when they’re able to get there, the outcomes are much better. There are rarely fatalities that occur.”