NYC Social Workers to Replace Police on Some 911 Calls, de Blasio Says

NYC Social Workers to Replace Police on Some 911 Calls, de Blasio Says
NYPD Officers gather in front of the Barclays Center prior to a protest in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 29, 2020. (Justin Heiman/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Some 911 calls in New York City related to mental health issues will be diverted to social workers rather than police in an initiative to reduce the role of law enforcement, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

Under the current protocol, New York Police Department (NYPD) officers and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workers are the default first responders to 911 calls reporting individuals experiencing mental distress, regardless of whether violence takes place, or whether a crime is involved. In the pilot program announced by de Blasio on Nov. 10, such calls will mostly be answered by mental health experts and social workers trained to handle such crises, with police officers included only in cases where there’s a clear threat of violence.

“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.”

The program will be rolled out in February 2021 in two precincts in high-need areas, de Blasio said. New mental health teams are expected to focus on deescalating emergency situations such as suicide attempts, substance misuse, and serious mental illness. They will respond along with NYPD officers, who are also trained on crisis intervention methods, in emergency situations that involve a weapon or imminent risk of harm.

The change comes as the NYPD faces significant budget cuts and calls for shifting some of its responsibilities to social workers. Following the death in police custody of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and riots, de Blasio and the City Council agreed on a budget that slashes the NYPD’s budget by $1 billion.

Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association labor union, expressed concerns that de Blasio’s pilot program may put mental health workers in harm’s way.

“Police officers know that we cannot single-handedly solve our city’s mental health disaster, but this plan will not do that either,” Lynch said in a statement. “It will undoubtedly put our already overtaxed EMS colleagues in dangerous situations without police support.”

Lynch added that the program isn’t addressing the fundamental causes of mental health issues in the city.

“We need a complete overhaul of the rest of our mental health care system, so that we can help people before they are in crisis, rather than just picking up the pieces afterward,” he said.