New York City is set to implement a new program that will send mental health professionals to respond to emergency mental health calls rather than police, city officials announced this week. Beginning in February, the program will create teams of EMS health workers and mental health crisis workers who will be dispatched to scenes through the city’s 911 system.
Police will not be the first responders for those calls, but will be dispatched as backup if there is a weapon or threatening violence at the scene. The program responds to calls from the public to invest public funding in police alternatives, especially regarding issues of mental health, where critics say police presence is often more dangerous than helpful.
Speaking with CNN, Matt Kudish of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said the new program is a step in the right direction, but he would rather see a system for mental health calls that does not involve police at all.
“This is this is not a police issue. It’s not a law enforcement issue. It’s a public health issue,” he told the outlet.
Kudish’s group previously proposed its own pilot program which would call on EMTs and trained peers with experience in handling mental health emergencies. He added that he would also like to see the city’s suicide hotline connect callers to community organizations that could offer them help or dispatch their loved ones.
According to CNN, the NYPD has raised concerns that EMTs and mental health professionals will be at risk if the situations become dangerous.
“Police officers know that we cannot single-handedly solve our city’s mental health disaster, but this plan will not do that, either,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said. “It will undoubtedly put our already overtaxed EMS colleagues in dangerous situations without police support.”
According to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife Chirlane McCray, who announced the program on Tuesday (Nov. 10), there were over 170,000 mental health crisis calls to 911 last year. The majority of the callers, she said, were “people who just needed help.”
City officials said the pilot program will begin in two high-need communities that have been hit hard by COVID-19, but did not specify which ones.