Social workers to respond to 911 mental health calls in NYC as violent crime increases

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Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a new initiative in two New York City communities where social workers and EMTs will respond to 911 mental health calls, eliminating the need for police response in most of these situations. 

“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” de Blasio said in a statement. “For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need.”

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The move comes after a year of social reckoning surrounding policing across the country, with some activists calling to defund the police and reallocate money and resources away from officers and towards more community-based interventions for non-violent offenses or calls for help. 

De Blasio also backed a city council vote in July to slash the police budget by $1 billion and pare down the force by eliminating some 2,500 officers, with no immediate plans of graduating a new class of officers from the police academy.

Currently, NYPD officers and FDNY Emergency Medical Services Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) respond to nearly all mental health 911 calls, regardless of the severity of health needs, whether a crime is involved, or whether there is an imminent risk of violence.

But the new program will send mental health professionals and crisis workers from FDNY Emergency Medical Services to tackle mental health emergencies in two "high-need precincts"– the 25th Precinct in East Harlem and the 47th Precinct in the north Bronx.

The city says the overall number of mental health 911 calls fell by over 8,000 in 2019, the first decline following a decade in which 911 mental health calls increased every year and in every precinct in the city. 

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However, "The City" news outlet reported that the number of 911 calls involving mentally ill people skyrocketed from 97,000 in 2009 to nearly 180,000 last year.

The program will kick off in February 2021, and focus on de-escalating emergency situations– including suicide attempts, substance abuse, and serious mental illnesses and well as physical health problems– while reducing the number of times armed police officers respond to 911 mental health calls.

Police officers in New York are also being trained on new crisis intervention methods to respond to behavioral health problems, and over 65% of NYPD staff have received the training, the city said.

In situations involving a weapon or imminent risk of harm, the Mental Health Teams will partner with NYPD officers to coordinate a response, De Blasio said. 

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New York City has seen a spike in violent crime in 2020, with homicides spiking 40 percent from 246 people killed in 2019 to 344 people killed in 2020 as of the end of September. Year-to-date, there has been a 91% spike in citywide shooting incidents, a 42% increase in burglaries and a 33% decrease in hate crimes.

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