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In the coming weeks, police responding to mental health-related 911 calls in two New York City neighborhoods are due to begin a grand experiment.

For the first time, cops will drop off people experiencing crises not at jails or hospitals, but at new clinics called diversion centers.

“Guests,” as they’ll be referred to under the ThriveNYC program, will be handed off to staff at the centers.

Then the cops will immediately leave — even if the person experiencing the crisis decides to get up and walk out the door with them.

City Hall says these new centers — one in Manhattan, the other in The Bronx — will open soon. But residents and local officials in those neighborhoods say they have been told very little about how the clinics will function or who will be staying there.

And because of the lack of transparency, they worry about how the diversion center experiment will play out.

‘We Didn’t Have a Vote’

Kioka Jackson, president of the 25th Precinct Community Council in East Harlem, where a diversion center will be located in an E. 116th Street office building above a pawn shop and Chase bank, says she supports the concept.

But she has concerns about the center’s day-to-day operation.

“The police officers have to put the individuals in handcuffs for safety … and they are escorted into this building. But once they get into the building, and they sign their name or whatever, they can leave, like, behind the police officer,” she said.

A diversion center is planned for 179 E. 116th St. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“If people can leave on their own — and they were just put in because they were having an issue — then what does that mean for them going right back into the population?”

The other center will open inside a two-story beige office building in Williamsbridge, under the No. 2 El, that already houses a state outpatient mental health clinic. The local community board is against the plan, though members say they’ve had little opportunity to make their objections known.

“Community Board 12 does not support this, but there was nothing we could do,” said Ursula Greene, a community associate with the board. “We didn’t have a vote.”

Delayed and Delayed Again

Stephanie Buhle, a Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson, declined to describe how the centers will handle clients in crisis once police officers leave, stating she “cannot share the logistics at this time.”

“This is a complex and detailed undertaking with many partners, as is the case when building any entirely new form of service delivery,” she said. “We’re excited to be in the home stretch of launching this new and needed service for vulnerable New Yorkers.”

The road to completion has been filled with potholes. Originally floated in December 2014 as a key innovation of Thrive NYC, the mental health initiative run by the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, the diversion center idea suffered a series of setbacks.

Its initial start date of 2016 came and went after the Health Department had trouble finding a provider to run the centers.

By 2017, the department had contracted with two nonprofits, Samaritan Daytop and Project Renewal, with a new start date of December 2018. That, too, came and went.

By early this year, the total contract costs had risen from $89 million to $103 million, and the start date had been moved yet again to Fall 2019. Last week, department officials amended the start date again to an unspecified time in 2020.

The journey to the finish line has taken so long, the city official who long championed the cause, Dr. Gary Belkin, has since left his job as Health Department executive deputy commissioner. He departed the agency in October.

Dramatically Different Approach

Whenever the centers open, they’re expected to provide a dramatically different approach to how the NYPD deals with the subjects of 911 mental health calls.

Cops currently transport people to precinct holding cells, jail or a hospital emergency room, and stay with them until they are in a secure setting. Diversion centers aim to minimize contact between law enforcement and the mentally ill — interactions that, on occasion, result in disaster.

Since 2015, 15 people dealing with mental health crisis have been killed by police — including Saheed Vassell, a bipolar man shot by cops who erroneously believed he had a gun, and Deborah Danner, a schizophrenic woman who was shot while experiencing a breakdown insider her apartment.

Saheed Vassell, who suffered from a bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by NYPD officers in Crown Heights in 2018. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The number of 911 mental health calls, meanwhile, has doubled in the past decade, from about 97,000 in 2009 to 179,000 in 2018.

The Police Department has struggled to keep up, promising to train its entire force of 34,000 cops on de-escalation tactics aimed at preventing violence. As of this week, 12,000 are trained.

The NYPD’s new approach — announced by the mayor in October in a “crisis intervention” plan first promised after Vassell’s death — will have teams that pair cops with a mental health worker when responding to 911 calls involving emotional crisis.

The centers will debut in two precincts — East Harlem’s 25th Precinct and The Bronx’s 47th Precinct — that have logged a high number of mental illness-related 911 calls.

If the trial run works out, City Hall hopes to expand the program to more precincts across the boroughs.

Invited ‘Guests’

A key question for neighborhoods where diversion centers open: How will these clinics work?

When cops take someone into custody who’s experiencing a mental breakdown, it’s typically because they have reason to believe the person is potentially a threat to themselves or others.

But in announcing the sites for the diversion centers a year ago, de Blasio and McCray emphasized that the facilities would serve only “people with mental health needs who do not pose a risk to public safety” and “aren’t a threat to others.”

Contract-related documents prepared by the city Health Department specify that cops must immediately leave the center after dropping off the “guests.”

“After the guest has made initial contact with the staff there shall be no further law enforcement involvement, mandate or expectation from the police — even if the guest leaves the center prior to having all identified needs met,” the documents say.

Safety Rules Cited

The paperwork also says that the nonprofits operating these sites — Samaritan in The Bronx and Project Renewal in East Harlem — must create guidelines “regarding how staff should respond to situations that involve violence (threats or actions), weapons and drugs.”

Health Department officials said Samaritan and Project Renewal have hired private security guards who will be present all the time.

A diversion center is set to open inside a health facility on White Plains Road in The Bronx. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The providers will be required to provide guests with “low threshold engagement through an interdisciplinary team comprised of clinical and peer staff in a welcoming milieu.” Peer staff are individuals who have mental health issues.

The centers can each accommodate a maximum of 19 guests, who aren’t supposed to stay more than five nights unless they’re receiving “clinically necessary services.” In that case, they can stay up to 10 nights, with Health Department permission.

Who winds up staying in these beds remains to be seen. Many — but not all — will be the subjects of emergency 911 calls.

“All encounters are managed on a case-by-case basis,” said Al Baker, an NYPD spokesperson. “When appropriate, some individuals in need will be brought to a support center and those individuals who need to go to the hospital will be transported by EMS.”

The contract documents also advise that the providers “may” create a “good neighbor agreement with community resident groups, businesses and other interested parties.” As of this week, no such agreement had emerged in either neighborhood, and community leaders say they’ve been told little about the plan.

City ‘Radio Silent’

Jackson, the 25th Precinct Community Council president from East Harlem, says she has not heard from the NYPD or city officials about the diversion center for months, and is eager to get questions answered.

Officials have not mentioned the project at precinct council meetings, and last visited the local community board in February.

“The general community has never been able to address or even get any details about the diversion center,” Jackson said.

The 47th Precinct in The Bronx, meanwhile, had the longest police dispatch time of any precinct in the city last year — an average of nearly nine minutes, double the city average.

Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) attends a hearing at City Hall, Jan. 24, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As in East Harlem, officials have heard little about when the center will open and how it will operate.

“The administration has been radio silent,” said Councilmember Ritchie Torres (D-Bronx), whose district includes the Samaritan-run center. “There’s no evidence of movement at all.”

Torres supports the idea of the center. He’s one of several elected officials, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who’ve long pressed the de Blasio administration to reduce interaction between the police and those with serious mental health issues.

“There’s a great need for alternatives to incarceration and hospitalization,” Torres said.

Jailing those in crisis, he added, is “not only bad morals” but “it’s bad policy and it’s bad economics.”

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