What Happens When Police Show Up for Mental Health Calls?
The mayor’s new involuntary commitment plan faces big obstacles, starting with a significant drop in the number of cops trained to handle mental health calls and a 911 system that can’t direct those officers to the correct locations.
On a warm August evening in 2019, Peggy Herrera called 911 because her 21-year-old son, Justin Baerga, was experiencing a mental health breakdown inside the Queens apartment they shared. Herrera knew what she wanted and she knew what she didn’t want.
“I need an ambulance to show up — not the police,” she told the dispatcher, according to a transcript of the audio obtained by THE CITY. “My son has issues. Mental issues. And I will not let anyone in unless EMT is there because...”
The 911 dispatcher interrupted, asking, “Is he violent?”
“He’s not violent to anyone. He breaks stuff because he’s anxious. So I will not let police in because they are not trained to deal with EDP situations,” Herrera said, using the police acronym for “emotionally disturbed person.”
Sure enough, despite the mother’s savvy pleas, a squad of police officers showed up before the emergency medical technicians. When the encounter was over, both mother and son were handcuffed, with Baerga strapped to a gurney after he tried to halt the arrest of his mom.
That unfortunate chain of events illustrates a consistent problem the NYPD has for years failed to remedy: the potential for disaster when cops respond to 911 mental health crisis calls. And it could get worse soon.
Last month, Mayor Eric Adams announced a new plan to more aggressively rely on involuntary commitment to address the problem of seriously mentally ill people living on the streets of New York. This will inevitably mean more cops interacting with people experiencing crises.
The plan broadens the justification for police taking people into custody and forcing them to undergo a hospital evaluation, although opponents say the plan rests on shaky legal ground.
Previously, police mostly operated on the basis that a person had to be an immediate threat to themselves or others to be taken to jail or a psychiatric institution.
The new approach — which the city says follows new guidelines issued in February by the state Office of Mental Health — authorizes removal of anyone “who appears to be mentally ill and displays an inability to meet basic living needs even when no recent dangerous act has been observed.”
The initiative cites three examples of such displays: “serious untreated physical injury, unawareness or delusional misapprehension of surroundings, or unawareness or delusional misapprehension of physical condition or health.”
The new protocols went into effect immediately, and Adams promised a measured approach including ratcheting up training for cops, doctors, social workers and others involved in the process of authorizing involuntary commitment to a psychiatric ward.
Right out of the gate, Adams faces three major challenges, THE CITY has found:
- The number of cops who’ve received Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) related to handling mental health calls has dropped dramatically over the two last years, to the point where nearly two-thirds of active duty officers remain untrained.
- With so many untrained cops, it would make sense for 911 to automatically route these calls to cops with CIT, as the department’s inspector general recommended five years ago. The NYPD has said that’s impossible, insisting the problem would be moot once the entire staff was trained. That’s nowhere near happening.
- A 2021 pilot program called B-HEARD (Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division) that aimed to take police out of the equation altogether has faltered. The goal was to assign teams of EMTs and social workers to mental health calls, but the vast majority of such calls are still handled by cops.
On Thursday, lawyers representing several groups advocating for the rights of individuals with mental health challenges — including Herrera and her son — asked a federal judge to temporarily halt Adams’ new plan, arguing that it will rely too much on untrained cops deciding a person must be committed to psychiatric care against their will.
A hearing is set for Monday.
Deciding Without Expertise?
Cal Hedigan, CEO of Community Access, a nonprofit that’s pressing to remove cops from these interactions entirely and is involved in the lawsuit, said of Adams’ new initiative: “It sets up more opportunities for conflict and harm.”
The suit describes one such negative opportunity: “At the heart of Plaintiffs’ Application is the City’s use of police officers with little to no expertise in dealing with individuals with mental disabilities who will be required to determine whether an individual should be forcefully — often violently — detained against their will.”
Hedigan is particularly concerned about the broadening of the definition of what constitutes harm to oneself to include “inability to meet basic living needs,” in the city’s wording.
“This is laying the groundwork that just being on the street, just living on the street, being unhoused — that could be interpreted as not taking care of your basic human needs. Therefore being unhoused is being criminalized and setting up hundreds, thousands more opportunities to say that someone is potentially going to harm themselves,” she said.
In response to questions from THE CITY, the NYPD press office in an email emphasized that the department is fully behind the mayor’s new initiative and “will be providing additional training to our members on the standard for removal.
“Mental health is a longstanding and highly complex issue and the NYPD works closely with our many public and private partners to ensure that those in need have access to the mental health and wellness services they require,” said the email. “We are willing to do our part, and this has the full support and attention of the NYPD.”
Most Cops Untrained...
If past history is any indication of what’s to come under this new protocol, however, the track record is less than impressive. Since 2007, for example, 25 individuals have been killed by police officers responding to 911 mental health calls.
Advocates for the mentally ill and elected officials have long pressed for an improved response that favors de-escalation and getting only properly trained first responders to the scene to keep encounters from becoming tragedies.
Getting that approach up and running, however, has been a work in progress.
It was 2015 when the police department first agreed to provide crisis intervention training, or CIT, which is used in localities across the country. In the first few years thousands of officers got training.
But in Sept. 2020, the NYPD stopped the training due to the pandemic, and momentum came to a halt. As of that month, the NYPD said more than 18,000 of its 36,000 uniformed members of service had been trained.
Since then the number has dropped. This October, the number was 16,869, and as of mid-November, there are now only 13,802 active members who’ve gone through CIT, according to the NYPD.
In response to THE CITY’s questions about why the numbers are dropping, the department blamed a recent wave of retirements, but insisted, “Our CIT training remains ongoing.”
And the department has no way to ensure that cops with CIT knowledge will be dispatched to a 911 mental health call — a recommendation made five years ago by the NYPD inspector general, the independent investigator of the agency.
...And Trained Cops Are Not Called First
In 2017, NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure issued a report in response to the 2016 fatal police shooting of a schizophrenic woman, Deborah Danner. In it, he made several recommendations, most of which were adopted by the NYPD.
One was not: the suggestion that the NYPD update its dispatch system to automatically route 911 mental health calls to cops with CIT training.
The NYPD said the system’s software couldn’t handle that, and instead argued that the recommendation would be moot once all cops were trained in CIT.
Well into 2021, the inspector general continued to press the department to find a way to deal with any software issues. The NYPD’s strategy of making the recommendation moot has failed so far, with the department distant from the goal of putting every cop through CIT.
“The fact that they’re not taking advantage of the cops that have that training is more than distressing,” Hedigan of Community Access said. “That’s a tool that they have at their fingertips. It would seem that people who are truly committed to reducing harm would make a good faith effort to pair people with training with people having a mental health concern.”
Two years ago, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio tried a different no-cop approach, creating a pilot program that, instead of cops, teams up EMTs and social workers to handle 911 mental health calls, if they do not involve the threat of violence. This approach was dubbed B-HEARD, and teams were tried out in two precincts, then dispatched to six.
The no-cop approach was meant to get individuals off the street and into longer-term treatment, but that did not happen. As THE CITY reported earlier this year, in fiscal year 2022, B-HEARD handled only 1,766 of the 11,000 911 mental health calls — about 16% — in the pilot precincts. Most of the individuals continued to be brought to hospital ERs.
Those figures show that cops still respond to almost all of these calls. And these interactions are likely to increase now that Adams has broadened the justification for involuntary commitment.
Kate Smart, a spokesperson for Adams, declined to respond to THE CITY’s questions about the dramatic drop in cops trained in CIT or the NYPD’s refusal to accept the recommendation to route 911 calls to CIT-trained cops, but she insisted that the B-HEARD program was a success:
“B-HEARD teams have responded to a large majority of the calls routed to them, 73% in FY22, even as the pilot area has nearly tripled the number of precincts served since launch. This puts B-HEARD’s response rate on par with similar well-known models across the country, and in some cases better.”
What 911 Hears
Another longstanding issue that will become even more important now, is what the police are told by 911 dispatchers about the circumstances at the scene. The specificity of the information can mean the difference between a routine interaction and disaster.
For several years now, advocates and elected officials have zeroed in on “lost in the translation” information provided to cops sent to these calls by 911 dispatchers.
“You’re dealing with judgment calls,” Hedigan said. “And people who are trained through a law enforcement lens, they’re far more likely to assess for risk and go with the law enforcement response, versus some who was trained with a different lens, whether it’s public health or social work.”
In a recent report, Public Advocate Jumanne Williams made multiple recommendations to improve these encounters, including emphasizing the need for 911 dispatchers “to be able to identify and effectively relay when a mental health crisis is occurring.” That includes “all known information about past police encounters, documented mental health diagnosis and current behavior patterns must be conveyed to responding officers.”
Williams cited one example where faulty information conveyed by a 911 dispatcher preceded a fatal encounter: In 2019, Kawaski Trawick, shot by cops inside his Bronx apartment.
In an investigation of the shooting, the Bronx district attorney zeroed in on the 911 calls preceding the encounter “for the sake of laying bare potential deficiencies in the NYPD dispatch-patrol system.”
The cop who wound up shooting Trawick told the district attorney’s investigators that the 911 call came in as harassment, not an “EDP,” so “upon dispatch, he had no reason to believe this job involved a person having a mental health crisis,” the DA report said. If the dispatcher had flagged it as EDP, the DA noted, a supervisor would have shown up.
‘Leave My Son Alone!’
This “lost in translation” flaw has surfaced in other, lower-profile cases — and is precisely what happened with Justin Baerga and his mother, Peggy Herrera, in Aug. 2019, just three months after Trawick’s fatal encounter with police.
Baerga, 21, was diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD, according to the lawsuit challenging the city’s new policy. The evening of Aug. 25, 2019, he was fighting with Herrera inside their first-floor apartment in Queens, and broke a mirror in anger. Herrera then dialed 911 and made her request that EMTs — not cops — respond to take him to the hospital.
Questioned by the dispatcher, Herrera said her son had no weapons and had not hurt himself or anyone else. About 30 minutes later, three police officers arrived at the apartment, followed soon after by two EMTs.
THE CITY has reviewed body-camera footage of the incident, obtained by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the same group requesting that Adams’ new policy be put on hold as part of the lawsuit they brought on behalf of Baerga and three other clients.
The footage depicts a scene that starts out benign and then deteriorates over the course of an hour. The cops and EMTs try at first in vain to resolve the situation without a confrontation, but then a sudden shift sends the interaction in a very different direction.
Once Herrera had placed the 911 call requesting assistance from EMTs but not police, the cops and EMTs who showed up made clear to her that her son would have to go to the hospital. As one cop explained to Herrera, “You called us. They [EMTs] came. We came with them. They say he has to go to the hospital.”
When the cops arrived, Baerga had locked himself into the apartment and Herrera — who was outside awaiting the first responders — didn’t have her keys. She called for her son to come out, but he refused.
For about 40 minutes, cops and EMTs talked to the young man through the closed window of the apartment, trying to convince him to come out. Some were clearly using the de-escalation techniques of CIT, including attempting to build a rapport with Baerga.
“Listen, I’m not pretending I’m going to change your life because I’m not,” one cop said. “But you have the chance to change it yourself. And if you go in that ambulance voluntarily you’ll still make it to your job in the morning. Like I said I’m not pretending that I’m Mr. Fix It. I’m not.”
‘Come and Arrest Me’
Baerga appeared calm and lucid but refused to budge. At one point he told a cop, “Break down the door. Come and arrest me. I don’t care.”
Then two members of the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit (ESU), the heavily armed group that handles hostage situations and standoffs, showed up with body armor, helmets and tools to break down the door.
Herrera begged them not to force their way in, placing herself in front of the door and saying she’ll sign papers saying it’s okay to leave her son with her. But the cops were set on going in.
“You’re not going to break my door! Stop! Stop!” she hollered. “Don’t break my door. Leave my son alone!”
An officer and a sergeant then grabbed Herrera and wrestled her to the ground, the video shows.
As they pulled her arms behind her back and handcuffed her, she repeatedly screamed, “I’m not under arrest. I didn’t do anything.”
One cop responded, “Yes you are. You don’t want to listen, so this is what happens.”
From inside the apartment, Baerga saw what was happening and emerged, yelling at them to leave his mother alone.
The cops immediately surrounded him, pushed him against the wall, then wrestled him to the sidewalk. He flailed his arms when they tried to detain him, and they punched him in the back to get him to stop struggling.
With the assistance of the EMTs, Baerga was handcuffed and strapped to an orange gurney, cursing the whole time. He was then placed in an ambulance and, according to the lawsuit, brought to Queens General Hospital and released shortly after arriving “without receiving any treatment.”
His mother was initially arrested on obstruction of justice charges but several months later the Queens district attorney dismissed the case.
This past July, Baerga was shot and killed by an unknown assailant wearing a ski mask while at his 24th birthday party in a Richmond Hill auto body shop. No arrests have been made.
Herrera, 53, does not understand what happened when she asked 911 for help and wound up in handcuffs.
“It was like a drug bust the way they showed up,” she told THE CITY on Sunday. “They’re not trained. They wind up beating him up. He came back [from the hospital] the same time, He was there for five minutes. I spent the night arrested.”
“Still to this day I don’t know — what did you do for us?”