mental health

Public Advocate Leapfrogs Mayor With Mental Illness Emergency Response Proposal

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks at a West Harlem rally, Sept. 25, 2019.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks at a West Harlem rally, Sept. 25, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Stepping out ahead of long-promised action from Mayor Bill de Blasio, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on Wednesday proposed an emergency response overhaul for calls involving people with mental illness.

The public advocate wants to create a new emergency phone number and dispatch system, separate from 911, for calls seeking assistance for people experiencing a psychiatric crisis. Williams also proposed increased funding for crisis services and evaluation of alternatives to police as first responders.

The plan draws extensively on reporting from THE CITY documenting the rapid growth in the number of 911 calls — and potentially avoidable deaths at the hands of cops who responded.

Since 2015, 15 individuals with mental illness have been killed in encounters with police.

Those include Kawaski Trawick, shot to death in April after multiple 911 calls about a disturbance brought firefighters, then the NYPD to the Bronx supportive housing facility where he lived.

Huge Jump in 911 Calls

Williams also noted THE CITY’s reporting on a surge in 911 calls involving individuals the police call EDPs — emotionally disturbed persons. Those calls jumped from 97,132 in 2009 to 179,569 last year.

This alarming trend prompted de Blasio to promise a number of reforms — vowing in 2015 to quickly train most of the NYPD’s 36,000 uniformed cops to deal with those experiencing a mental health crisis. By March 2019, only 32% had been trained.

Saheed Vassell, 34, who suffered from a bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by NYPD officers in Crown Heights in 2018.
Saheed Vassell, 34, who suffered from a bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by NYPD officers in Crown Heights in 2018. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Shortly after the April 2018 death of Saheed Vassell, 34, who was shot after waving around a piece of pipe cops mistook for a weapon, de Blasio created a task force and promised reforms to improve how police deal with these encounters within 180 days.

Last Friday, City Hall officials told THE CITY they planned to release their reforms this week. On Wednesday, however, de Blasio press secretary Freddi Goldstein declined to say when that would happen.

Williams — who has criticized the NYPD’s handling of incidents involving mentally ill people — noted the mayor’s long-overdue reforms. “This inaction keeps the city at risk for even more tragedies,” he said.

Alternatives to Police

Williams calls for expediting training for all cops — and for creating “a model for non-police response to non-criminal emergencies” involving the mentally ill.

He cited an Oregon nonprofit called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) that responds to 911 calls — sometimes with police, sometimes without. The group also fields calls from a special non-911 dispatch line for “non-emergency mental health situations.”

New York City currently has 24 mobile crisis teams in which cops are paired with mental health professionals. But as THE CITY revealed in March, these teams have yet to be looped into the 911 system.

Williams noted this flaw in his report, stating, “This results in the city not using this crucial resource when they are most needed.” He suggested linking the teams into 911 and pairing them with nonprofits to increase the number of boots on the ground.

He also called for forming “non-police” teams to handle some 911 calls that don’t require an NYPD response, and hiring staff from the city’s diverse neighborhoods who “speak their languages and are steeped in their cultural norms.”

Carla Rabinowitz of Community Access, a non-profit group that has long pressed for improved response to those experiencing mental health crisis, praised Williams’ plan.

The report, Rabinowitz said, “opens the door for NYC government to start the process of entirely overhauling its response to 911 crisis calls by funding non-police alternatives.”

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