Patch: NYC Groups Want MH Experts Not Police to be First Responders

Keep Cops Away From People In Emotional Crisis, Advocates Say

by Noah Manskar  Patch Staff Apr 4, 2019

NEW YORK — A year has passed since NYPD cops shot and killed Saheed Vassell on a Brooklyn street corner after getting mistaken reports that the bipolar man had a gun. But Vassell's death wasn't the first of its kind — 13 people in emotional crisis have died in encounters with police since June 2015, when the NYPD started training cops on how to interact with them, said Carla Rabinowitz, the advocacy coordinator for Community Access.

That's why mental-health advocates say the city should take police out of the equation as much as possible when it comes to dealing with people in emotional crisis. Mental health experts should be the first responders instead, they say, not the cops.

"Most family members and people with mental health concerns, we are now fearing the police," Rabinowitz said at Thursday rally outside City Hall, flanked by more than 70 other advocates. "When the family members call for help, it's often too late. They're calling for help when the situation has gotten so bad and 911 is the only option."

Vassell's family members held a small vigil Thursday afternoon at the corner of Utica Avenue and Montgomery Street in Crown Heights, where he was killed a year ago.

Cops responding to 911 calls fired 10 bullets at the 34-year-old at that intersection before police figured out he was holding a metal pipe, not a gun. But Vassell's mother, Lorna Vassel, said Wednesday that she doesn't believe he had anything in his hand.

Vassell was reportedly known to the neighborhood and to cops in the area. But witnesses said the officers who responded that day didn't even identify themselves before shooting him down, according to his father, Eric Vassell.

"Saheed would still be here today if the New York City had effective procedure for responding to people in emotional distress," Eric Vassell said Thursday.

The de Blasio administration has made efforts to improve the ways cops interact with people in crisis. The city reportedly plans to give 16,000 cops crisis intervention training by 2021, though just about 12,000 have been trained so far.

De Blasio also commissioned a task force in April 2018 to create a citywide strategy for improving the city's response to emotionally disturbed people and preventing mental-health crises in the first place. The panel got input from more than 150 people and issued recommendations in December, according to City Hall.

A list of draft recommendations that Community Access distributed Thursday includes 15 suggestions for improving the response to 911 calls, reducing the number of calls for mental health crises and making sure the recommendations stick. City Hall is "carefully reviewing the final recommendations," de Blasio spokeswoman Marcy Miranda said.

"This Administration has made an unprecedented commitment to overhauling how the City addresses mental health, and this task force was charged with finding recommendations to improve the City's crisis response system," Miranda said in a statement.

Rather than just training cops to help, advocates want the city to send people with deeper mental health experience to the scene when an emotionally disturbed person needs help. That could be a social worker, another trained mental health worker or someone who has been through a crisis themselves, they say.

Advocates also want an alternative to 911 so there's a dedicated number to call when a crisis arises. Washington County, Minnesota, the home of Minneapolis, started a 24-hour line in January where people can reach social workers and it got 1,000 calls in six weeks, according to Rabinowitz.

"Police and 911, unfortunately, are trained in dealing with criminal issues and criminal crisis," Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said. "The reason we keep having this is because we are giving a criminal response to a medical problem."

Patch editor Kathleen Culliton contributed reporting.