Mental health

NYC Readies to Send Social Workers Into Uncharted Territory — 911 Mental Health Calls

The "B-HEARD" program aims to reduce encounters with police and get people with mental health crises into care

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It’s one of the big questions in police reform - who should respond when someone calls 911 with a mental health emergency?

Under a new pilot program, instead of showing up with police, New York City EMTs will be accompanied by a social worker.

It’s called "B-HEARD," for Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division.

The idea is to limit NYPD contacts that could go bad or trigger an emotionally disturbed person.

City Hall says 2 percent of their 911 calls are related to emotionally disturbed people. It also says only about 1 percent of 911 calls to mental health emergencies end in arrest currently, with police involved.

City officials say these new teams will only be dispatched to 911 calls that come in without weapons or violent behavior.

“The NYPD supports this initiative and played a role in developing protocol and training for the program," the department said in a statement.

In NYC's newest effort to reform policing, EMTs will respond to mental health emergencies with social workers, not police officers. Some are optimistic about the change, while others have safety concerns. NBC New York's Melissa Russo reports.

'The World Is Watching'

News 4 was given access to observe the new teams as they are tested with various scenarios in this fourth week of a five-week training at Fort Totten in Queens.

EMS staffers play the role of agitated patients, lashing out at the EMT social worker teams when they arrive. Social workers work to keep the patient calm and validate their concerns as the EMTs take vitals - and determine if transport to a hospital can be avoided.

"What I’m looking for since I do not have (police) is making sure there are no weapons.  That there’s nothing that can harm the patient or any of the (EMS) members," FDNY Capt. Ronald Floyd said in an interview. ”This is not to have anything against NYPD. I like to use the term 'you can’t use a hammer for every situation.'”

Social Worker Salley May quit her job of 20 years as a mobile mental health outreach worker at Bellevue to take this job because she believes so deeply in the mission of de-policing the response to mental health.

“When police show up it’s very traumatic for a patient.  You see their eyes go like THIS. Already they’re elevated and it’s difficult to deescalate.  Police don’t have that training," May said.

“You know  - the world is watching this program and we feel it."

Social workers will dress in plain clothes on these jobs – because they believe it’s less triggering than uniforms. (EMTs will be in uniform for safety.)

Why Harlem?

The pilot is scheduled to start in June, in Harlem, because it’s the zone with the highest number of 911 mental health calls.  In 2020 there were 8,703 in that neighborhood, according to a City Hall spokesman. 

The city also chose Harlem because the neighborhood has an extensive network of existing psychiatric programs that can link patients to longer-term care post-crisis.

But to get to those programs, first there has to be a safe intervention - for the first responders as well as the patients.

“It only takes 5 seconds for a non violent situation to become a violent situation," said Bob Ungar, who represents EMS workers. “Our people are not police. They are unarmed.

“In a nutshell our biggest concern is the personal safety of our members who are responding on these calls.”

Ungar wants EMTs to have more training in how to defend themselves. An FDNY spokesman says every member of the pilot program has had extensive self-defense training over the last several weeks.

"Maybe they should be carrying the kind of spray that you know mail carriers carry.  Maybe pepper spray or some basic self defense training.”

City officials also confirmed the EMTs will be paid six percent extra salary differential for participating in this program, similar to those who work in HazMat teams.

Transit workers say there were three incidents involving people with mental health issues in the subway on Wednesday. They're calling on the city to do more to provide mental health services. NBC New York's Checkey Beckford reports.

Limited Metrics

There are not a lot of other alternate dispatch programs out there, so it’s hard to assess what the success rate has been.

The Cahoots program in Eugene, Oregon is one everyone talks about. Baltimore is doing a pilot on suicidal patients as well. But those are much different places than New York City.

The candidates for mayor are calling for this to be done, here and now.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has already put $92 million of federal stimulus money into the fiscal 2022 budget to scale the pilot program citywide.

If it works, it could benefit people like Peggy Herrera, who ended up in jail in 2019 after calling for help for her son - help she says he never received.

"It's always a trigger," said Herrera, who has plans for a notice of claim against the city. "I called for help for my son's crisis ... which didn't end good."

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