Responding To Mayor’s Plans On Mental Health: We Already Ask Enough Of Law Enforcement

October 22, 2019

Disability Justice, NYLPI v. NYPD, News

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NYLPI’s Director of Disability Justice, Ruth Lowenkron, was quoted in an article in The City this morning, responding to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new plans to reform the way that New York copes with people who are suffering with mental health crises:

“It is not what we were expecting,” said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s disability justice program. “I’m in a state of shock if this is all the mayor is coming out with.”

NYLPI and a host of disability rights organizations wrote to mayor Bill de Blasio two weeks ago, asking him to institute robust reform measures to the way the city handles police crisis response. Meanwhile, Ruth spoke earlier this month at a rally in partnership with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams about his new report, which reenvisions the city’s response to mental health crises to involve a peer response model.

Now, while we applaud the general effort by the mayor to prevent more New Yorkers dying at the hands of police, the mayor’s office ignored the primary point of our recent letter to him, which was to remove police as the first respondents to mental health crises. It’s very disappointing.

Mr. Williams himself responded to the mayor’s report last night, telling reporters that “We already ask too much of law enforcement, and a criminal response to a medical emergency only heightens the chance of tragedy, and reduces the likelihood that those in need will call for help in the first place.”

Some more of our reactions to the report:

  • We’re pleased with the mayor’s apparent plan to add so-called “mobile crisis teams”, although the number of teams to be added is very small.
  • We’re also pleased that there appears to be greater reliance on “peers” — those who have experienced mental health crises themselves — although that reliance appears to be limited to allowing peers to train police, rather than including them in all aspects of crisis response.
  • We’re also pleased that the mayor plans to reconvene his task force “in the coming weeks” to “study further reforms.”
  • We’re happy about the language change eliminating the term “EDPs”, or “emotionally disturbed persons” from police vocabulary. We’ve never liked the labelling of people as “emotionally disturbed” because it puts more distance between the police and the people they serve, just like their guns do. All people are capable of going through emotional disturbance, but it shouldn’t define us, and we like to see the person, first. That’s why this matters.

The practice of embracing of an entirely non-police response is in line with experts, internationally. CIT International, Inc., recently released Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Programs: A Best Practice Guide for Transforming Community Responses to Mental Health Crises, in which they assert the best way forward is to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, police response in instances of mental health crises. And in the United States, New York has the chance to join other leading jurisdictions, nationally:

  • In Eugene, Oregon, EMTs and specially-trained crisis workers – rather than the police – are responsible for responding to mental health calls, which has resulted in far fewer serious injuries than have occurred under the system in NYC over the last 30 years. 
  • Houston, Texas incorporates social workers, police, and fire department personnel into their 911 call centers to screen and divert mental health-related calls away from the police. The police are called in only when the crisis escalates to imminent risk of violence.
  • In Broome County, New York, operators divert 911 calls with a low-risk of harm to a mental health crisis line with a trained mental health professional.
  • Los Angeles, California’s response system includes sending a clinician and a mental health peer to a subset of 911 calls, and uses remote technology to link to a psychiatrist for consultation before deciding where to transport a person in distress.

The City’s story is available at the website, and reproduced here:



It’s been 18 months since Eric Vassell lost his son Saheed to the police shooting that spurred Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to overhaul how the NYPD deals with people experiencing mental health crises.

On Monday, as Blasio released the long-awaited reforms, the elder Vassell struggled through his ongoing grief to find some solace.

“It’s sad that my son had to lose his life for them to take these steps,” Eric Vassell told THE CITY.

Advocates for people with mental illness who had offered advice to the mayor on how to change the city’s emergency response system weren’t as measured in their words.

They almost universally panned de Blasio’s revamp as overdue and underdone — not going nearly far enough to minimize the NYPD’s involvement in the kind of 911 call responses that have ended with the deaths of 15 people going through psychiatric crises since 2015.

“It is not what we were expecting,” said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s disability justice program. “I’m in a state of shock if this is all the mayor is coming out with.”

THE CITY reported Monday, the NYPD will for the first time, in a two-precinct test, send mental health clinicians out with cops to respond to 911 calls for people with mental health issues. The Health Department will expand medical team follow-ups with the subjects of such calls.

Meanwhile, the NYPD will stop using the phrase “EDP” — for “emotionally disturbed person” — and instead dub responses “mental health calls.” The Police Department also will establish a mental health unit.

Tragic Circumstances

De Blasio announced the changes in a news release Monday with his wife, Chirlane McCray, who spearheaded the city’s ThriveNYC mental health effort. The mayor initially had promised to come up with a plan within six months of the death of Saheed Vassell on April 4, 2018.

Cops responded to 911 calls that day after the 34-year-old bipolar man was seen walking down a Brooklyn street pointing an object at passersby. Callers said they weren’t sure whether Vassell was wielding a gun. Yet the 911 dispatcher told officers they were headed to a “firearms job.”

The object Vassell was pointing turned out to be a piece of pipe.

The cops who responded to the scene in Crown Heights were unaware of Vassell’s mental health history and weren’t trained to handle mental health calls.

Eric Vassell said he liked the idea of cops pairing with mental health professionals.

“Sending people, not just police officers, that would be great,” he said. “Police officers, the intention is to stop you. I don’t want to say that their intention is to kill you.

“But they are not coming with a medical mindset,” he added. “They are coming with a criminal mindset. If someone can come with a medical mindset, then it would be better. Their approach would be in a more professional way.”

Over-Use of Cops Seen

Still, some advocates for people with mental illness said sending co-response teams to 911 calls continues what they deem the over-use of police in often volatile situations. They would like to see cops rarely, if ever, involved.

“The solutions outlined in the final recommendations do not go far enough to reform the crisis response system in New York,” said Cal Hedigan, CEO of Community Access, an advocacy group pressing for reforms to the mental health system. “Co-response teams … rely heavily on law enforcement and reinforce the idea that the solution to a mental health crisis arrives in a police car.”

Lowenkron worried about how the teams would interact on the street: “Who’s going to be stepping forward and who’s going to be stepping back? Is that (mental health clinician) going to be allowed to go ahead or is the police officer going to be calling the shots?”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who released a list of proposed reforms last month, also took issue with the expansion of co-response teams.

“We need a non-police first response to mental health crises, and this plan does not even put us on a path toward that goal,” he said.

The mayor’s plan also did not address Williams’ proposal to create an alternative dispatch system that exclusively handles mental health calls. Still, Susan Herman, director of ThriveNYC, told THE CITY Williams’ idea is “worth considering.”

Lowenkron and others did applaud de Blasio’s call for expanding the use of medical clinician teams to follow up with people in mental distress to make sure they’re taking their medication and getting the help they need.

No More ‘Normal’ Days

Saheed Vassell had stopped taking his medications, said his father, adding it was difficult for him and his wife, Lorna, to get their son to follow his prescribed regimen.

Eric Vassell praised the increased effort to make sure trained professionals follow up to make sure people are getting the treatment they need.

“That would be great because many of these people think that they are okay when they are not,” he said. “My son is an example of that situation.”

The Vassell family still lives in the same apartment, a couple blocks from the street corner where Saheed was shot. Eric Vassell says his wife cries every day.

“We are just here going on,” he said. “It has never been a day when it’s a normal day before our son was killed. Our life will never go back to where it was.”




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