/ July 22, 2021

Bloomberg: NYC’s Mental Health Emergency Response Pilot Shows Promise in Early Data

Police officers are the chief problem solvers in most American cities — they do traffic enforcement, respond to mental health crises, watch over parks, deal with neighborhood disputes and handle violent crime. But, in the year since George Floyd’s murder, governments have been searching for ways to scale back their reliance on the force.

One such experiment happening in cities across the U.S. is an attempt to replace the traditional police response to mental health crises with social workers and emergency medical services personnel. The goal of these programs, which are currently being piloted in New York City, Denver, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles, is to reduce deadly and costly interactions with police, while getting people the care they need.

Nationwide, law enforcement spends about a fifth of their time and $918 million annually responding to mental health calls, according to a report by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors. A quarter of people shot by police are in the midst a mental health crisis, the report found.

So how are the pilots going far? Preliminary data released Thursday from New York City, which is a month into its trial, suggests some early success. The teams, who are on call 16 hours a day, seven days a week, responded to about a quarter of all mental health calls in parts of Harlem, over the month. 

While police transport people to the hospital 82% of the time, the teams only sent callers there half the time. The data also showed that individuals in crisis were more likely to accept help from the teams than traditional police — 95% accepted care, higher than the typical 82% acceptance rate for police-led teams. 

“You have to think about police and ambulance response as a valuable resource that should be used only when they’re really needed,” said Susan Herman, director of the mayor’s office of community mental health and head of the program.

Police have started to trust the teams, too, according to Herman. Officers dispatched to a scene called the mental health teams for assistance 14 times during the first month. That’s twice as many times as the teams themselves had to call police in for backup.

There are plans to expand the effort to more neighborhoods and ultimately citywide over the next year, and there is money from the federal government in the city’s budget to do just that. However, with a new mayor set to take control of the city in January, and the federal funding set to run out next June, the future of the program is far from a sure thing. 

“If people get the kind of care that’s really appropriate, that is going to save money,” Herman said. “It’ll be well worth the city’s while to continue the funding.”

This article was published by Bloomberg.