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No more EDPs: NYPD’s emergency plan to deal with mentally ill New Yorkers

October 21, 2019 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Oct. 21 by THE CITY

Trained mental health workers will finally start joining cops responding to 911 calls in a bid to reduce deadly encounters between the NYPD and New Yorkers experiencing psychiatric crises.

Police will no longer refer to the subjects of such emergency pleas for help as “EDPs” — cop-speak for “emotionally disturbed persons” — and instead use the term “mental health calls,” sources said.

And the NYPD will rely more frequently on people who have experienced mental health issues to help train police officers.

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Those are among key elements of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s envisioned transformation of how cops deal with people going through disruptive episodes of mental illness. THE CITY obtained a copy of the plan, which also calls for the establishment of an NYPD mental health unit, ahead of an expected announcement Monday.

The changes follow de Blasio’s vow of an overhaul after police last year fatally shot Saheed Vassell, whom officers erroneously believed was brandishing a gun.

Vassell was one of 15 civilians experiencing mental health issues killed since 2015 during explosive confrontations with cops — most of whom were not trained to deal with people in psychiatric crisis.

A spike in 911 calls

The long-delayed changes address issues raised by a March investigation by THE CITY, which found City Hall had fallen short on reforms as the number of 911 calls involving mentally ill people jumped from 97,000 in 2009 to nearly 180,000 last year.

THE CITY’s report revealed that specially trained “co-response” teams — consisting of two cops and one city Health Department mental health clinician — were not allowed to respond to 911 calls.

The teams, trained to de-escalate conflicts before they become tragedies and first put in place by the de Blasio administration in 2016, have until now only fielded non-emergency requests for assistance.

The NYPD will start dispatching co-response teams to emergency scenes in the coming weeks in one of two precincts with a high number of 911 calls dispatchers say involve individuals experiencing a mental health crisis: the 25th Precinct in East Harlem or the 47th Precinct in the north Bronx.

After a trial run, the approach will go into operation in both precincts. The total number of co-response teams citywide will double from eight to 16.

“Now, for the first time, they will be assisting 911 response,” said Susan Herman, director of City Hall’s program to address mental health issues, ThriveNYC and a former NYPD official. “They will be addressing crises as they are occurring.”

The reforms were crafted by a task force formed in April 2018 that included the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the NYPD, the Fire Department, city health officials and advocates for improved treatment for people with mental illness, including the group Community Access and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC.

A reliance on ‘peers’

Some highlights of the plan, which changes how multiple agencies handle people dealing with mental crises:

  • The NYPD’s soon-to-be-created mental health unit will focus on policies and protocols related to mental health crisis response.
  • The end of referring to “EDP” calls and the turn to the “mental health calls” verbiage is intended to signal the NYPD’s shift toward new tactics in dealing with the mentally ill — and away from using stigmatizing language, according to sources familiar with the plan.
  • Individuals who have experienced mental health issues will be assigned to help train the NYPD’s Emergency Service Units and recruits at the Police Academy. These “peers” are already part of the training the NYPD is working to provide to all 36,000 uniformed staff. THE CITY’s March report noted that nearly five years after promising to train all cops, the NYPD is less than one-third of the way done.
  • The city Health Department will add eight more Health Engagement Assessment Teams — peers paired with mental health clinicians who handle non-emergency calls. Four of the teams will, for the first time, focus on individuals who have made multiple 911 calls seeking mental health care. Herman said about 10 percent of all mental health-related 911 calls come from about 275 people.
  • The number of “mobile crisis teams” made up of mental health clinicians who handle non-emergency calls received through the city’s NYC-WELL hotline will grow from 24 to 30. Herman said added teams will trim response time significantly, down from an average of 17 hours.

Major info gap persists

The mayor’s outlined overhaul does not address a crucial problem that’s contributed to disastrous police interactions with the mentally ill: 911 dispatchers failing to communicate adequate information to cops about a suspect’s behavior or mental health history.

That issue surfaced in the April 4, 2018, shooting death of Vassell in Brooklyn by a team of NYPD anti-crime cops who were not assigned to the neighborhood precinct.

They fired on Vassell in response to 911 calls reporting the young man, who was bipolar, was waving what appeared to be a gun at passersby. The “gun” turned out to be a piece of pipe.

Eric Vassell stands at the intersection of Montgomery Street and Utica Avenue in Crown Heights, where his 34-year-old son, Saheed Vassell, was fatally shot by NYPD officers in April 2018. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
Vassell’s heartbroken family contends the confrontation could have been avoided had the officers sent to scene in Crown Heights had been from the local station house. Neighborhood cops were familiar with Vassell’s illness, while the cops who showed up had no clue.

An investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James uncovered a communication breakdown in the 911 system that likely contributed to the way the NYPD responded.

One of the 911 callers, for instance, described Vassell pointing what he thought was a gun, but added, “I don’t know if it’s a gun.” Another caller stated, “He looks like he’s crazy.”

The dispatcher told the cops it was a “firearms job,” and that a “caller states the male was pointing a gun at people.” The dispatcher made no mention of the “crazy” reference.

Jumaane Williams’ plan cited

Two weeks after the Vassell shooting, de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, who spearheaded ThriveNYC, announced the formation of a Crisis Prevention & Response Task Force. They promised to identify specific reforms within 180 days, but did not release an agenda until a year after that date.

McCray’s ThriveNYC project has been criticized for failing to demonstrate results despite the budgeting of $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to its various programs since it kicked off in 2015.

First Lady Chirlane McCray spoke about the Thrive NYC program at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan in September 2018. Photo by Deidre Schoo/Mayoral Photo Office
Community Access, NAMI NYC and other advocates for the mentally ill have pressed City Hall for years to increase police training and reduce the chance of disaster by teaming cops up with social workers skilled in dealing with people experiencing psychiatric crises.

The reforms also don’t go as far as a recent proposal touted by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. He’s called for the creation of a dispatch system separate from 911 to handle certain calls involving people experiencing episodes of mental illness to reduce police involvement.

Community Access and a long list of other advocacy groups wrote to de Blasio last week calling Williams’ suggestions “extremely thoughtful” and urging the mayor to consider including many of his recommendations.

Herman said Williams’ non-911 dispatch proposal “is certainly a recommendation worth considering,” and noted City Hall intends to reconvene the task force in the coming weeks to study further reforms.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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