special report

The NYPD’s Mental Illness Response Breakdown

Eric Vassell stands at the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, where his 34-year-old son, Saheed Vassell, was killed by police officers.
Eric Vassell stands at the corner of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, where his 34-year-old son, Saheed Vassell, was killed by police officers. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Calls to 911 reporting what the NYPD terms EDPs — “emotionally disturbed persons” — have nearly doubled over the last decade, rising every year and in every precinct.

In the last three years alone, 14 mentally ill people have died at the hands of police, spurring calls for — and moves toward — reform.

Yet, four years after the city promised to teach every cop how to better deal with the mentally ill, less than one-third of the force has undergone the training.

And for three years, elite teams of mental health workers and cops that were formed to intervene with the emotionally disturbed haven’t been looped into 911 — a decision officials are only now reconsidering.

Those are among the findings of an investigation by THE CITY as New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray prepares to testify at a City Council hearing on Tuesday examining ThriveNYC — the wide-ranging $250 million mental health initiative she spearheads. The program has already come under scrutiny amid questions about its transparency and effectiveness.

The NYPD, meanwhile, struggles to keep up with a growing mental health crisis amid this troubling backdrop:

• “EDP” calls to 911 jumped from 97,000 in 2009 to almost 180,000 last year.

• In 2015, City Hall promised “crisis intervention training” for all cops to help them de-escalate interactions with the mentally ill. Today, just 11,970 of the NYPD’s 36,753 uniformed cops have been trained — and some may never be.

• “Co-response” teams of police and mental health workers formed three years ago were never connected to the 911 system. The police department acknowledges the teams wound up handling only a handful of cases generated by internal NYPD requests for assistance. The department is finally preparing to let these teams respond to 911 calls — but only as a pilot program in one precinct. After inquiries from THE CITY earlier this week, City Hall announced Wednesday night plans for a public roundtable on co-response teams for Thursday morning.

• In 2014, City Hall announced plans to open within two years “diversion centers” staffed by trained mental health workers, where cops could bring the emotionally disturbed — sparing already overburdened hospital emergency rooms and jails. No center has opened, though City Hall has finally picked sites and hopes they’ll be ready by the end of this year.

• In most of the 14 deaths recorded in the last three years, cops on the scene were not trained in how to deal with the often erratic and unpredictable behavior of people experiencing a mental health crisis. In one case, the cop who fired the fatal bullet was the only responding officer who didn’t undergo crisis intervention training.

A memorial for Saheed Vassell, who suffered from a bipolar disorder and was fatally shot by police in Crown Heights in 2018.
A memorial for Saheed Vassell, who suffered from a bipolar disorder and was fatally shot by police in Crown Heights in 2018. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Some of those deaths — Deborah Danner and Saheed Vassell, for example — inspired headlines and protests. Other cases went virtually unnoticed by the public.

An ‘UnacceptablE’ Failure

“There is a serious problem in New York City in the manner in which the NYPD interacts with mentally ill people,” said attorney Sanford Rubenstein, who is representing seven families whose mentally ill kin have been shot by police since 2016. “The training of police officers with regard to that interaction is limited and the number of patrol officers who have been trained is small. That is unacceptable.”

Rubenstein’s most recent client is Michael Cordero, a 26-year-old schizophrenic shot in the hip by cops on March 5 during an encounter inside a Harlem apartment building hallway. The officers who responded believed Cordero had a gun when he pointed a wallet at them.

When Eric Vassell read about the Cordero incident, it hit home: On April 4, 2018, his 34-year-old bipolar son, Saheed, was fatally shot by a team of cops responding to 911 calls about a man who “looks like he is crazy” and pointing what witnesses thought was a gun at passersby in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

The “gun” was a piece of metal pipe. Vassell, 64, said his son was trained as a welder and liked to collect pieces of metal. He noted that the NYPD statement asserting cops had followed protocol during the shooting of Cordero mirrored the statement they made right after his son was shot.

“It’s almost the same statement,” he told THE CITY. “You’re not coming with an intention of saving a life. You’re coming with an intention to take a life. No compassion.”

Vassell’s attorney, Robinson Iglesias, added, “The real issue is: How can the NYPD get to a scene where there’s a situation going on and not make it worse?”

An Endless Deluge of 911 Calls

Meanwhile, the number of mental health–related 911 calls has grown to an average of nearly 500 a day. And no precinct is exempt.

The Bronx’s 44th Precinct, near Yankee Stadium, recorded nearly 5,000 EDP 911 calls last year, up 35 percent from 2014. That’s an average of 13 calls daily.

In Manhattan’s Midtown South Precinct, which includes Times Square and Penn Station, the 911 EDP calls jumped to over 4,300 — more than double what it was in 2014 — averaging 12 calls a day.

An analysis by THE CITY of precinct-level 911 calls, obtained via the Freedom of Information Law and demographic statistics compiled by John Jay College, shows that poorer, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods consistently experience a higher volume of these calls.

“It is overwhelming in the neighborhoods that I represent,” said Bronx councilmember Ritchie Torres. “Whether it be Tremont or Fordham — you can feel it and see it on the ground … You see chemically addicted, mentally ill people, who either are languishing on the street or being cycled in and out of the criminal justice system. And I’m wondering to myself, there has to be a better approach. This is insane.”

Poorer Neighborhoods Harder Hit

Dr. Gary Belkin, the top city health official in charge of addressing the NYPD’s interaction with the mentally ill, said precinct-specific data indicating large numbers of mental health 911 calls in poorer neighborhoods mirror data showing that poorer black and Hispanic neighborhoods register a higher number of psychiatric hospitalizations.

The precinct-specific 911-call maps “are similar to other maps,” he said. “I think the high psychiatric hospitalization rates in northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, Central and Eastern Brooklyn, are the result of, yes, increased burdens and exposures to risk factors but also less earlier [mental health care] options. It’s a combination of the how the delivery systems service people in different places across the city.”

Susan Herman, the former NYPD deputy chief Mayor de Blasio reassigned in January to run the broad-reaching ThriveNYC plan to improve mental health services, noted that the stress of poverty can exacerbate mental health issues.

“Neighborhoods that have problems tend to have lots of problems,” she said. “Neighborhoods that are under-resourced and disadvantaged and have less access to health care generally probably have less access to mental health care. And things tend to reach a crisis point because there isn’t any early intervention.”

She also noted the NYPD indicates that residents of lower-income neighborhoods “rely on 911 to solve problems more than wealthier neighborhoods in general.”

Mayor’s Push for Change Stymied

From the moment he arrived at City Hall in 2014, de Blasio vowed to steer the mentally ill away from hospital ERs and the police. He appointed his wife, Chirlane McCray, to oversee ThriveNYC.

Three years in, the number of police interactions is way up and most of the time the mentally ill wind up in either hospital ERs or put into the criminal justice system, statistics show.

As of last month, city officials estimated that 16 percent of inmates at Rikers Island have been diagnosed with serious mental illness, up from 10 percent a year ago.

An NYPD analysis of 2017 calls obtained by THE CITY shows that most 911 calls involving the mentally ill result in transporting them to hospital emergency rooms: 94,000 ER visits, or 56 percent of the calls that year.

Experts on mental health — including those who work for the city — agree ERs are not the ideal place to bring the mentally ill. They’re not equipped to provide long-term treatment necessary to keep people from shuttling from ER to jail, and so on.

Belkin told THE CITY that Health Department data indicate the subjects of these 911 calls who are transported to emergency rooms are often quickly discharged back to the street. And in 15 percent of those cases, these individuals then return to hospital ERs within 30 days.

“It gives us that general sense of the triage that’s going at the street level isn’t matching up to the need,” he said.

And by far, most of those hospital transports in 2017 — 71,905 calls or 75 percent — required a police escort, which meant cops were tied up at the ER while patients were evaluated.

The NYPD has set out to improve its interactions with people it encounters on potential mental health calls. Deputy Chief Theresa Tobin, who’s in charge of the effort, said the department is trying to find a better option than handling cases when often a mental health worker would often be more appropriate.

“The police department would like the appropriate people to respond, so if a social service provider or NYCWell [worker] can talk to a person, that is really something to examine and look at, and we would affirmatively support that,” she told THE CITY.

“I don’t know if there’s an algorithm to do that,” she added — a way of using technology to direct 911 calls to mental health response specialists. “They’re examining the calls to see which calls would be better sent elsewhere.”

Asked if she’s an optimist about planned reforms going forward, she responded with a caveat: “I am, but the volume [of calls] is really high.”

The pace of crisis intervention training, or CIT, has not kept up. In January 2017, the city Department of Investigationfound gaps in CIT training, and as of this week, only one-third of the force’s officers have received CIT.

Tobin says the goal is to train every officer, but the rollout has been slow. The latest plan would train only 16,000 cops already in service by 2021 — de Blasio’s last year in office. After that, only incoming police academy classes will get training.

Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, a member-driven organization advocating reforms of police interactions with people with mental illness, told THE CITY he sees this approach as inadequate.

“CIT training should continue until there is at least one trained officer at every mental health–related 911 call,” said Coe. “Establishing an artificial end date before you know what the need is doesn’t make sense.”

Lack of training has surfaced as an issue in some deadly police encounters. In July 2017, Dwayne Jeune, a 32-year-old schizophrenic living with his parents in Brooklyn, was shot by Officer Miguel Gonzalez when, cops say, he charged at them with a knife.

Three other cops at the scene had received CIT training. Gonzalez was the only who hadn’t, the NYPD acknowledged.

So why wasn’t Gonzalez trained in CIT, considering that he’d been involved in the prior shooting of Davonte Pressley, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, just nine months before he shot Jeune? Pressley survived; Jeune did not.

“It goes to the importance of training 100 percent of the officers,” said attorney Rubenstein, whose suit against the NYPD on behalf of Jeune’s family is pending in Brooklyn Supreme Court.

City Falls Behind on Key Reform

A crucial element to City Hall’s reforms is helping the NYPD steer the mentally ill to professionals who can provide proper care. Three years ago this month, the city formed co-response teams that pair a mental health clinician with two patrol officers to respond to requests for assistance for people in emotional distress.

At the time the teams were launched, the NYPD and City Hall chose not to loop them into the 911 system, even though the number of 911 EDP calls had already increased by more than half from 2009 to 2016, reaching nearly 160,000.

During the three years of the team’s existence, the calls continued to rise, hitting nearly 180,000 last year. But because they weren’t connected to the 911 system, the teams have intervened with just 884 individuals through January, responding only to internal NYPD requests for assistance, police said.

City Hall recently decided to reverse course: In December, a task force appointed by de Blasio following Vassell’s killing recommended allowing the teams to connect to 911. A pilot program in one precinct will be announced in the coming weeks, NYPD officials confirmed.

Another signature reform that’s run into problems: the proposed diversion centers.

Instead of bringing emotionally disturbed persons accused of low-level nonviolent crimes first to hospital ERs and then to jail, cops would bring them to a center staffed by medical professionals who could work up a long-term plan for care.

Announced in 2015, City Hall promised to open the first center by 2016. It was not to be.

The city sought nonprofits to run these centers, requiring that the groups find an adequate location and create from whole cloth a plan to run them. Few groups responded and those that did said the requirements were impossible — especially finding a suitable location.

By 2017, city officials redrafted the proposal, taking on the task of finding locations themselves, and issued two ten-year contracts currently totaling $96 million.

In December, de Blasio announced two locations for the centers, but as of last week, no building permits had been filed at one site, and the Department of Buildings had rejected the permits filed at the other.

Asked when the centers will likely open, Belkin wouldn’t commit to a specific date, stating, “We believe that they are on pace for this calendar year.”

Belkin favors greatly expanding programs like diversion centers that increase the involvement of health professionals in responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“Everyone would agree — including the NYPD — that the event should be matched by the response,” he said. “If the event is primarily a behavioral issue and there’s no imminent danger, then there should be a preference to stack the deck in favor of a clinical team response. It’s good for everyone.”

As they struggle to take control of this situation, city officials in charge of this reform aren’t sure exactly what is causing the alarming spike in these calls to 911.

“There could be any number of factors which could relate to housing issues, people are calling 911 as a response,” Belkin said. “There could also be potentially the fact that more people are seeking care, but this isn’t the ideal pathway to get it.”

This story was originally published in Intelligencer at nymag.com.