NY Bill Seeks Improved 911 Response to the Emotionally Disturbed

February 20, 2014 Updated: February 23, 2014

NEW YORK—New state legislation aims to cut down on the number of avoidable injuries and deaths of emotionally disturbed individuals after tangles with the police.

Last year the NYPD reported 56 incidents involving the emotionally disturbed where people were accidentally injured or killed by police gunfire, according to state Sen. Kevin Parker. Recent reports show that the NYPD deals with 150,000 calls regarding the emotionally disturbed each year.

The Crisis Intervention Act, introduced by Parker, supports a model of Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs) partnered with police officers to better respond to 911 calls involving the emotionally disturbed. The CIT model was first started in Memphis in 1988.

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry is introducing the same legislation in the Assembly.

“Too often those calls can result in an unnecessary arrest, emotional abuse, or worse,” Parker said.

Recent incidents include the fatal shooting of Rexford Dasrath, the accidental shooting of bystander Sahar Khoshakhlagh in Times Square, the injury of Karl Anders Peltomaa who was mistaken as emotionally disturbed a day after open heart surgery, and the wrongful arrest of Peltomaa’s wife, Suzanne LeFont.

The cost of the CIT training is minimal compared to the millions in damages the NYPD may potentially need to pay families of the emotionally disturbed who have sued, according to Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, a nonprofit for mental health consumers. The CIT model has previously been rejected in New York, but he is hopeful that new Police Commissioner Bill Bratton will adopt it.

“With the new administration we have a window of opportunity,” said Coe.

Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD police officer, and now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the bill is overdue. He believes the NYPD needs more training to better deal with the emotionally disturbed. He said that the NYPD has a few specially trained units, but frequently they are unable to respond in time because there are not enough of them.

He believes the police would see things differently if they had an opportunity to role-play, and to understand better what the emotionally disturbed are going through.

“It allows the cops to buy time,” he said. “The more they feel knowledgeable and secure the better. The worst thing is when there is a lack of information—it can create rash and bad decisions.”

“We are always one day away from a tragedy when you have armed people dealing with the mentally ill,” he said.

Follow Jane on Twitter: @itsjanewriting