hugh barry

TRYING A NON-POLICE APPROACH TO MENTAL ILLNESS: The case in which Police Sgt. Hugh Barry was acquitted by a Bronx Judge of criminal charges for fatally shooting Deborah Danner five years ago after she swung a baseball bat at him in a menacing manner was one of the catalysts that led the de Blasio administration to launch a pilot program under which Emergency Medical Service personnel, accompanied by mental-health professionals, will be the first-responders to mental-health calls in two Upper Manhattan precincts. Ms. Danner, who was 66, had struggled with schizophrenia for most of her life, and Sergeant Barry had spoken to her for 10 minutes and persuaded her to drop a scissors she had been brandishing just seconds before she grabbed the bat.

The Fire Department is launching a long pilot program that will dispatch specially trained members of the Emergency Medical Service along with mental-health professionals to respond to 911 calls for emotionally disturbed persons that until now were handled by the NYPD.

The initial roll-out includes 20 EMS workers—15 Emergency Medical Technicians and paramedics, three Lieutenants, a Captain and a Deputy Chief, according to Vincent Variale, president of the EMS officers union, Local 3621 of District Council 37.

Getting 6% Pay Bump

The Fire Department confirmed that the participants, who will be detailed to two high-need precincts in Upper Manhattan, will get a six-percent pay differential.

"They are already two months behind schedule because they couldn't get anyone from EMS to volunteer to do it because of the lack of compensation and support," said Mr. Variale, who supports the pilot. "We insisted that some of the training include self-defense classes for our members in case one of the patients gets violent. We want our people trained on how to get away."

He said it made sense to take non-violent mental-health-call responses "off of the police officers' plate," because "we have given too much to our police officers trying to turn them into social workers...without giving them the proper training or support to accomplish these goals. We see the result on the news when they take the person down, and that's that."

EMT Union Head Leery

Oren Barzilay, president of DC 37's Local 2507, which represents EMTs and Paramedics, said he had "serious concerns for the safety of our men and women. We have seen a spike of crimes, our mission is to save lives, [and] we don't want to be part of the statistics."

Across the country, in the aftermath of multiple police shootings of emotionally disturbed individuals, local governments have been looking at de-escalating strategies" like the one Mayor de Blasio announced last November.

According to research by the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit committed to improving mental-health care, people with "untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement."

"Numbering fewer than one in 50 U.S. adults, individuals with untreated severe mental illness are involved in at least one of four and as many as half of all police shootings," the TAC study found. "Because of this prevalence, reducing encounters between on-duty law enforcement and individuals with the most-severe psychiatric diseases may represent the single-most-immediate, practical strategy for reducing fatal police shootings in the United States."

Danner Case Resonated

In October 2016, the fatal police shooting of Deborah Danner seconds after being persuaded to drop a scissors she had been brandishing, abruptly picked up a baseball bat and swung it at an NYPD Sergeant, who responded by firing his gun, put a spotlight on how the city handled such calls. The Sergeant, Hugh Barry, was acquitted by a Bronx judge of of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide when the judge concluded he had acted in self-defense against the 66-year-old woman, who had struggled with schizophrenia since her teens.

The NYPD and EMS were dispatched to her apartment after a 911 call was made by the building's security guard because Ms. Danner was screaming in the hallway and tearing down posters in the common area. That response was the third to her apartment within two years. During those prior calls, the responding officers had to break down her door.

At a City Council hearing in September 2017, NYPD officials testified that out of the 150,000 EDP calls the department got annually getting annually, one percent, or 1,500 times, responding officers felt they had to use force, ranging from wrestling the patient to the ground to using a Taser or firing their gun.

In the 11 months before that hearing, six emotionally disturbed individuals had been shot and killed by the police the Gotham Gazette reported.

Took Cue From Eugene

The city pilot is modeled on a program in Eugene, Oregon that was established as an alternative response to situations where the presence of the police could destabilize the situation to the point where physical and even lethal force might be used. OF the 24,000 calls handled by the Oregon program, 150 generated a call for police back-up by the civilian responders.

Similar programs are underway in Albuquerque, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other U.S. cities.

"For the first time in our city's history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need," the Mayor said last year in announcing the initiative.

"Mental illness is not a crime, but we call upon the police as first-responders in a mental health crisis," said Linda Rosenberg of Columbia University's Department of Psychiatry. "The decision to have health professionals respond to mental-health crises underscores New York City's commitment to caring for, not punishing, people with mental illnesses."

Crisis-Reduction Step

"We are working toward a city where fewer mental-health needs become crises. And when mental-health needs do become crises, we reach people quickly with the care they need," Susan Herman, Director of the Mayor's Office of ThriveNYC, said last fall.

"The results of the pilot period will inform how the City responds to mental health emergencies in other neighborhoods," the Mayor's Office said at that time."

For Mr. Variale, the unresolved issue is the lack of existing capacity for mental-health treatment for the patients his members bring to the hospital.

"We are just putting a Band-Aid on a serious bleeding problem and we are doing this on the cheap," he said. "They are not giving the long-term care that's needed...Are we going to take these people to the hospital, only to have them discharged a day or two later?"

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