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For the first time ever, some mental health 911 calls in New York City will be handled by health professionals and mental health crisis workers – not police officers. On Wednesday, the city’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that new mental health teams will be the default responders to mental health emergencies in two “high-need communities.”

NYPD officers and FDNY Emergency Medical Services Technicians currently respond to almost every mental health 911 call, “regardless of the severity of health needs, whether a crime is involved, or whether there is an imminent risk of violence,” according to a press release from de Blasio’s office. 

In what the mayor’s office calls a “health-centered pilot” program, new Mental Health Teams will now be the default response to mental health emergencies in two communities. The teams will be comprised of health professionals and crisis workers from FDNY Emergency Medical Services, and will begin their work in February 2021. 

These professionals will be qualified to respond to suicide attempts, substance misuse and serious mental illness, as well as physical health problems, which can be exacerbated by or mask mental health problems, the mayor’s office said. 

Teams “will use their physical and mental health expertise, and experience in crisis response to de-escalate emergency situations,” the mayor’s office said.

If a weapon is involved or if there is imminent risk of harm, the NYPD will respond alongside Mental Health Teams.

The mayor’s officesaid that more than 65 % of the NYPD’s operational staff have now been trained in Crisis Intervention Team training. This is a “state-of-the-art approach that continues to improve the way officers recognize and respond to behavioral health problems experienced by people they encounter,” the press release reads.  

According to the mayor, one in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. “Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” de Blasio said in the press release. “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.”

During a press conference on Wednesday, NYC first Chirlane McCray called the Mental Health Teams a “modern and appropriate” approach that will treat mental health crises as mental health challenges – not public safety ones. “And that is because most individuals with psychiatric concerns are much more likely to be victims or harm themselves than others,” McCray said.

She said there is an estimated one mental health 911 call every three minutes and “the majority concern people who just needed help.”

McCray and de Blasio did not specify which two communities the pilot would begin in, but McCray said they were ones that have been “underserved for far too long and have been hit hard by COVID-19.” 

The pilot program was modeled on similar ones in other cities, including the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon. The CAHOOTS teams responded to about 24,000 calls in 2019, addressing a wide range of mental health-related crises and requesting police backup in just 150 cases, according to the press release. Albuquerque, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco are among other U.S. cities also implementing similar programs. 

During the press conference, McCray said with this program, NYPD officers will be “relieved” of responsibilities they should have never have been asked to handle. 

Oftentimes, advocates of defunding the police point to mental health 911 calls and feel mental health experts should handle such calls – not police officers. Supporters of this movement believe resources should be reallocated from police departments to make that happen. 

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