/ July 26, 2021

NY Daily News Editorial: Policing mental illness: What to make of the first month of an NYPD pilot

Very early data on a small-bore city pilot project in Harlem shows that sending social workers and EMTs instead of cops to some mental-health crisis calls can get more seriously mentally ill people help rather than subjecting them to danger or churning them through the criminal justice system, which all too often worsens their condition. It’s why the program should expand, as the NYPD intends.

The trial of what’s known as the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, or B-HEARD, which began on June 6, is sending teams of emergency medical personnel and social workers to answer some mental health emergency calls. In 95% of 107 cases where that happened, the psychologically disturbed individuals accepted help, getting connected to a clinic or hospital or the like, a figure significantly higher than the 85% acceptance rate when cops alone are sent. Good.

The glass-half-empty interpretation of the progress report says that despite trying to keep cops out of the mix entirely, they’re first to the scene in the vast majority of cases. Harlem had 532 mental-health emergencies over the month, and 425 of them were initially answered by police.

That rankles some advocates. But the truth is, when a 911 call comes in claiming someone may be a threat to others or themselves, or may be armed, the city’s first responsibility is to defuse the potential danger. While surely mistakes are made, you can’t blame 911 dispatchers for erring on the side of safety. Nor can you blame EMTs for sometimes asking for police backup if they arrive and determine a situation to be especially volatile.

It is a lasting tragedy that Deborah Danner, Kawaski Trawick, and 16 other New Yorkers once called emotionally disturbed persons have been killed by police over the past five years. It is a crying shame that thousands of desperate people cycle through jails rather than getting help. But in the end, many times, there’s no substitute for a rapid response that puts public safety first.

This editorial was published by the New York Daily News.