New York City to try responding to mental health calls without police

Mental health and crisis workers in New York City will respond to emergency mental health calls instead of law enforcement under a pilot program announced on Tuesday, following months of protests around the country over police brutality.

The program, slated to begin in February, will be composed of new mental health teams from the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services unit and will target two “high-need” neighborhoods, which were not identified.

“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,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

The move comes as New York and other large cities seek to reform their police departments after the May death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and other incidents sparked nationwide protests.

The national debate over how to improve policing has, in part, centered on how to prevent mental health calls from escalating into violent confrontations with police.

New York police officers and emergency medical technicians currently respond to nearly all 911 calls involving a mental health issue, regardless of whether there is a risk of violence.

De Blasio and the city’s first lady Note: “first lady” is never capitalized, Chirlane McCray, said in the statement that the responders would have the expertise to deal with a range of situations, including suicide attempts, drug abuse and physical problems which can mask mental health issues.

The mental health responders will be accompanied by a police officer if there is a weapon involved or “imminent risk of harm,” the statement said.

The city is modeling the trial after programs in other cities, including one in Eugene, Oregon, in which unarmed mental health professionals respond to mental health calls instead of the police.

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