Emergency Medical Technicians accompanied by mental-health professionals will respond to 911 calls involving emotionally disturbed persons that until now have been handled by police in two still-to-be-determined police precincts, the de Blasio administration announced Nov. 10.
Those calls have almost doubled over the last decade, going up in every precinct, according to the The City website. Since 2016, in at least 14 instances, civilians wound up being killed by the responding police officers.
"This is the first time in our history that health professionals will be the default responders to mental-health emergencies," First Lady Chirlane McCray told reporters at Mayor de Blasio's Nov. 10 press briefing. "Treating mental-health crises as mental-health challenges and not public-safety ones is the modern and more-appropriate approach."
"Now we're going to lean on our first-responders from the FDNY to help bring this idea to life, to achieve something different and important, first in a few neighborhoods and then with the goal of going all across our city," the Mayor said.
First Deputy Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said, "Members of FDNY EMS are the best caregivers of any 911 system. They know how to get there quickly, make good assessments, and have always provided the highest level of care."
The pilot is modeled on alternative-to-police response programs in Eugene, Oregon where paramedics and mental-health professionals are embedded into the 911 system. Last year, according to city officials, of 24,000 EDP calls fielded, approximately 150 of them required police backup. Albuquerque, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, have also begun similar approaches.
The experiment, a collaboration between the Emergency Medical Service, NYC Health+Hospitals. the Mayor's Office's Thrive NYC, the Health Department and the NYPD, follows the city's retraining of tens of thousands of NYPD officers to better recognize signs of emotional distress and de-escalate tense situations.
EMS Unions' Concern
While police-reform and mental-health advocates have long pressed for reducing reliance on police for EDP calls, the unions that represent the EMS workers have concerns rooted in the 2017 murder of Paramedic Yadira Arroyo, allegedly by a mentally-ill homeless man with an extensive criminal record.
District Council 37's Local 2507, which represents EMTs, in a statement committed to discussing the pilot, noting the city was in a "mental-health crisis, with emotionally disturbed individuals living on city streets, in shelters and neighborhoods everywhere."
But union President Oren Barzilay also expressed serious reservations.
"I am not in support of going on to calls without police protection, self-defense training, body armor, or anything else that could prevent the harming of my members," he said. "They keep giving us more responsibility with no additional compensation. So, now they have found a new way for us to risk our lives for minimum wages."
Vincent Variale, president of DC 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, said the concept behind the pilot had the potential "to save lives," but added, "I am a little confused here because our EMS crews have been responding forever to these kinds of calls, and I think in general they have gotten more violent. And so we need to be upgrading the training for every EMT, because the nature of these calls can change in an instant."
'Should Be Compensated'
He continued, "And the Mayor keeps forgetting about the need for our members to get additional compensation. They have us on the front lines responding to HazMat calls, counter-terrorism incidents and now this."
During the briefing, Deputy Commissioner Kavanagh told reporters that the pilot would be limited to "non-violent mental-health calls, which are the vast majority of mental-health calls."
"And in the cases where violence could be a possibility, the police will be responding with us as they have before," she added. "And that will not change. It is of great importance to us that our members are safe and the public is safe as well."
Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch had doubts about the change, saying in a statement, "Police officers know that we cannot single-handedly solve our city's mental-health disaster, but this plan will not do that, either. It will undoubtedly put our already-overtaxed EMS colleagues in dangerous situations without police support."
Takes Shot at Thrive
He added, "We need a complete overhaul of the rest of our mental-health-care system, so that we can help people before they are in crisis, rather than just picking up the pieces afterward. On that front, the de Blasio administration has done nothing but waste time and money with ThriveNYC and similar programs. We have no confidence that this long-delayed plan will produce any better results."
City officials said the two precincts selected for the pilot program would be among those that were chronically underserved and had been hit hardest by COVID-19.
"I hope that one of the communities in The Bronx suffering from high rates of people in crisis will be selected for the pilot for Mayor de Blasio's Mental Health Teams program," Bronx District Attorney Darcel D. Clark stated in an email. "Since the tragic killing by police of Deborah Danner in the Bronx more than four years ago, I have been calling for a behavioral health approach to dealing with emotionally disturbed persons."
Ms. Clark, whose office failed to get a conviction of the NYPD Sergeant who fatally shot Ms. Danner after she lunged at him with a baseball bat. continued, "Families should be able to call for help from mental-health professionals, instead of the police who should be the last resort. This new approach will be more effective in getting people the help they need before they reach the most-critical stage."
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