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Cops Still Handling Most 911 Mental Health Calls Despite Efforts to Keep Them Away

NYPD officers patrol 125th Street in Harlem, July 20, 2021.
NYPD officers patrol 125th Street in Harlem, where there’s a pilot program to have EMTs and social workers handle 911 calls involving people experiencing mental health episodes.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A pilot program aimed at reducing potentially volatile police interactions with people in mental health crises got off to a bumpy start, with cops still responding to the vast majority of 911 calls, THE CITY has learned.

The program, part of Mayor de Blasio’s much-criticized $1 billion ThriveNYC program, started June 6 in three Harlem precincts. Teams consisting of two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and one Department of Health social worker are supposed to tackle mental health-related 911 calls when appropriate.

But in the first month, the EMT/social worker teams wound up handling only about 20% of the 532 mental health calls — 107 cases in all. The other 80% — representing 425 calls — were addressed the usual way: by teams of cops and EMTs, according to data the Mayor’s Office plans to release Thursday.

That’s because in most cases, 911 dispatchers decided the person in crisis was either a threat to themselves or others. The EMT/social worker teams are supposed to be assigned only to calls where no such apparent threat exists.

And the four teams — which cover 16-hour shifts seven days a week — weren’t always available to respond to all the calls to which they were routed, the data shows.

In 31 instances, the NYPD wound up handling calls designated for EMTs and social workers because the teams were already out on other cases.

The pilot program emerged in response to a series of incidents over the last five years in which 18 people experiencing mental health emergencies were killed by police in New York City.

Ellen Trawick and her son, Kawaski Trawick, at his college graduation in 2013.
Ellen Trawick and her son, Kawaski Trawick, who was later killed by police in his Bronx apartment.
Courtesy of Trawick Family

The NYPD most recently came under fire for the fatal 2019 shooting of 32-year-old Kawaski Trawick by cops responding to a 911 call about an “emotionally disturbed person.” Trawick was gunned down inside his Bronx apartment in a building operated by a city-sponsored supportive housing organization.

‘It’s an Outrage’

Figures showing that 80% of mental health calls were handled by police in the Harlem precincts run contrary to pre-pilot program projections by Susan Herman, director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health, the new name for ThriveNYC.

In a November private call with members of Correct Crisis Intervention Today (CCIT), a coalition of 80 advocacy groups pushing for the reform, Herman estimated that cops would wind up handling only 30% to 40% of such calls.

At a City Council hearing in February, Herman said that ultimately deploying EMT/social worker teams would be “the new primary response to mental health emergencies.”

ThriveNYC Director Susan Herman talks about the agency’s revised budget.
ThriveNYC Director Susan Herman talks about the agency’s revised budget, Feb. 28, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

CCIT steering committee member Ruth Lowenkron, director of the Disability Rights Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said the new data shows the promises and estimates of the de Blasio team were hot air.

“It’s an outrage. This is not what was represented,” Lowenkron told THE CITY Wednesday. “The bottom line is there is so much sleight of hand in terms of what they say they’re doing and what they’re actually doing.”

Lownkron said the data indicates “there is absolutely no attempt to adhere to the promise” the administration has made about the program.

‘We’re on Track’

In June, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea hinted that three months into the pilot program, 85% of the mental health calls in the targeted precincts continued to be handled by the cops. In an interview on 1010 WINS, Shea stated, “They are still having police respond because there is a weapon or violence involved.”

In response to THE CITY’s questions about this, a spokesperson for the Office of Community Mental Health wrote in an email that Herman’s estimate in November “is consistent with what we’re planning for now, but requires some clarification.”

The spokesperson explained that since November, the administration decided that EMT/social worker teams would not be dispatched to any mental health 911 call if the individual was experiencing “urgent medical need.” Ambulances will be sent instead.

The office now concedes that eventually, only 50% of all 911 mental health calls will likely be handled by EMT/social worker teams.

In an interview with THE CITY Wednesday, Herman defended the initial results of the program, stating, “It’s clear from what we’re seeing that this pilot has had a promising first month of operation. We’re on track to meet our goals.”

EMTs respond to a person in distress on 125th Street in Harlem, July 20, 2021.
EMTs respond to a person in distress on 125th Street in Harlem on Tuesday.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A key problem with cops handling these calls was that the subjects wound up under arrest and taken to jail or dropped at hospital ERs — two locales not suited to addressing the needs of individuals experiencing a mental health crisis.

Herman said in the first month of the program, 50% of the individuals helped by the EMT/social worker teams wound up in hospital ERs, while 20% were transported to community-based care centers. Another 25% were assisted at the scene and referred to the city’s NYC Well program, which assists people with mental health issues.

“What we’re doing with this new approach is shifting the way an entire system is operating,” Herman said. “We’re bringing mental health care to people as quickly as possible in these scary moments.”

‘Situations are Fluid’

The complexity of dealing with these types of calls is also evident in how first responders reached out for help: In 14 cases, cops wound up calling in the EMT/social worker teams, while in seven instances the EMT/social workers had to call in the cops.

Lowenkron praised the cops who made such calls, but questioned why 911 dispatchers would send police in the first place.

“These situations are fluid,” the Office of Community Mental Health spokesperson noted, adding that in some cases, cops arriving on the scene determined the EMT/social worker teams could help de-escalate the situation.

“Upon NYPD arrival, the [police] may see that the situation has stabilized, or the officers may have helped stabilize it,” the spokesperson said. “Or there may have been reason to suspect a weapon or the possibility of imminent violence. When they arrive and see that isn’t the case, they now can call on [EMT/social worker] teams to provide the appropriate health-centered response.”

As for the situations in which the EMT/social worker teams wound up requesting NYPD assistance, the spokesperson cited a couple of examples:

“Upon arrival, teams see that a call that came in as suicidal ideation may have escalated towards imminent action. In other cases, a person’s agitation may increase to the point where the team feels the situation has become more volatile, and NYPD can offer assistance to keep everybody safe.”

City officials have said the NYPD would continue to respond to mental health 911 calls “involving a weapon or imminent risk of harm” to the individual or others.

After Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in April that he planned to spend $112 million to expand the pilot program citywide, Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507, the union representing EMTs, expressed concerns that members would wind up facing dangerous situations without police backup.

He told THE CITY that few members volunteered for the program “because of the danger…. There’s a fear that without having police on the scene, who is going to mitigate?”

Barzilay did not immediately respond Wednesday to THE CITY’s inquiries about the release of the statistics on the program’s first month.

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