The city is expanding a program that will redirect some mental health emergency calls from police to social workers and medical professionals
“If there was someone just listening to him,” Rohlan Pierre, his older brother, said shortly after watching videos of the shooting. “Because that’s probably all he really wanted and needed was someone just to listen to him in that moment.”
New York is expanding a pilot program that does just that — sending unarmed professionals to listen to and otherwise support people with mental health crises. The goal is to avoid the violence that all too often ensues when police officers intervene at the scene of a crime. According to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and advocacy group Correct Crisis Intervention Today, NYPD officers have shot 19 people in the midst of mental health crises since 2016, 16 of whom were black.
The new $50.4 million pilot program — called B-HEARD, or Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division — began last summer in Harlem and will expand to Washington Heights and the South Bronx. It involves dispatching a social worker and two FDNY paramedics/paramedics instead of police officers to mental health calls. B-HEARD will not respond to calls threatening violence. So if it was operating in the area where Pierre was killed, a B-HEARD team probably wouldn’t have responded.
Officials say early signs are that the program has been a success, helping to avoid costly, distressing hospitalizations while connecting those in need to long-term help. But Pierre’s family and advocates for people with mental illness say mental health professionals are not dispatched often enough to save lives.
The purpose of the B-HEARD program is for unarmed responders to establish a relationship with the person in distress in order to de-escalate the situation. In contrast, officers who spoke to Pierre didn’t even ask his name until he was shot and they tried to revive him, according to camera footage.
At a recent exercise in Queens for new B-HEARD employees who are in a month-long training program, paramedics and a social worker re-enacted a scene that mirrors the type of scenario they will encounter on the ground: A young man with History of mental illness yells at his mother who called 911 and is now crying. The social worker sits in a chair and talks quietly to the son until he calms down.
“The cops aren’t coming either, are they? Because I didn’t do anything,” says the son, played by EMT Mario Crespo.
He is assured that no cops are coming into the house and that he is not going to the hospital, where he fears being sedated. Finally, the son allows the paramedics to measure his vital signs. Eventually, mother and son agree to a referral to family therapy.
“The only good thing about reaching out for help today is that maybe there’s something we can do to support you both, right?” says the social worker, played by real-life B-HEARD social worker Francisco Rivera.
In his work for B-HEARD, Rivera said he responds to calls for panic attacks, verbal arguments, psychotic episodes and intoxication. He is dressed in street clothes and arrives in a vehicle with no flashing lights marked “Mental Health Response Unit.” The paramedic or paramedic assigned to his team conducts the medical exams, and Rivera conducts the psychiatric evaluations. The goal is to de-escalate the situation and refer the patient to services such as city-funded psychiatric treatment.
“In the end, it’s much more about a patient wanting it be heard‘ Rivera said, repeating the acronym for the program. “Sometimes what is anger to some people is actually fear … You’d be surprised how often someone calls 911 and literally just wants to speak to someone. And that’s the whole job – just sitting and talking to them.”
City officials say B-HEARD is successful because it reduces the rate of unnecessary trips to the hospital, where police almost always take people with mental health problems. In its first few months, B-HEARD handled an average of 17 psychiatric calls per day, and less than half of those resulted in hospital admissions – compared to 87% who were hospitalized via traditional police treatment.
B-HEARD teams transported 19% of the people they serve to a community health or social service, such as the East Harlem Support and Connection Center. B-HEARD is operated in part by NYC Health + Hospitals, which officials say makes it easier to refer services.
Janine Perazzo, social worker and executive director at NYC Health + Hospitals, recalled a case where a B-HEARD social worker was sitting on the floor with a distressed teenager. Once the situation stabilized, the teenager was connected to follow-up care.
“If the team hadn’t been there to take the time to sit on the floor and engage, with a traditional response it’s entirely possible they would have been hospitalized,” she said. “It’s those moments where you really see the beauty of this work. And people get the right answer – I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”
However, some advocates for people with intellectual disabilities point to another statistic that makes them skeptical: From the start of the program in June through the end of March, in the counties where B-HEARD operates, only 22.8% of calls were resolved mental health cases — 1,525 in total — were referred to B-Heard instead of the police, according to the NYPD. This response rate has led to criticism.
“How dare anyone, let alone our taxpaying government agency, call something with this kind of statistic a non-police response?” said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability rights program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. She represents New Yorkers with intellectual disabilities, who filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in December calling for non-police responses to all mental health crises. She said police involvement resulted in prolonged incarceration, forced hospitalizations and unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system.
As they gain more experience on the ground and can better advise 911 operators on what to handle, B-HEARD executives said they hope to eventually eliminate 50% of mental health calls in the counties they serve. to be taken away from the police.
Part of the reason for the low response rate is that unlike similar programs nationwide, B-HEARD does not take calls when threats of violence exist, and the New York Police Department will continue to be instrumental in handling such emergencies. Sometimes the NYPD calls B-HEARD for help, officials said. Only twice did B-HEARD call the NYPD about security concerns.
A spokeswoman for the NYPD, Lt. Jessica McRorie said in an email that police support B-HEARD “because they direct the appropriate authorities to respond to people with mental health crises when there are no public safety concerns.” She said that mental health calls in the counties where B-HEARD operates are routed by the NYPD’s 911 operators to the FDNY dispatchers, who decide whether to assign B-HEARD to the call.
B-HEARD does not operate in Brooklyn where Pierre was killed. And because Pierre’s case involved potential violence — police said Pierre actually called 911 himself and left a suicide note — the teams would still not have been dispatched. But Pierre’s family believes a non-police officer could have saved his life.
They said he was just sick and needed help from someone not pointing a gun at him. After viewing videos of the incident, they said it was clear there was enough time to seek help from a psychiatrist before the situation escalated.
“Now to think that just because there are no protocols to help someone who is having a mental health episode that he is not here to experience life is unfair,” said Pierre’s older brother Rholan, who said Pierre has Schizophrenia. Right now, his brother needed “a calm voice to let him know everything’s going to be okay, someone who kind of sheds a light through the dark clouds in his head.” Instead, Rholan said his brother got flashing police lights, what probably confused him.
The family started a petition calling for a state “Eudes Pierre law” that would require 911 operators to ask if a person has a mental health crisis. If so, mental health specialists would be called to the scene, followed by emergency responders and police.
“The only way we feel we can move on and make something right out of it is to make sure Eudes Piere is the last person to suffer during a mental health episode where they are faced with callousness instead of compassion and calm.” and caring,” said Pierre’s cousin, Sheina Banatte.
A study by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center found that people in mental health crises are 16 times more likely to be killed in police encounters than others.
When the NYPD uses violence against a mentally ill person, they often say that the person poses a direct threat to them: Deborah Danner, 66, was killed in her home while wielding a bat; Saheed Vassell, fatally shot after police believed a whistle he waved was a weapon; Miguel Richards, shot dead in his apartment while holding a knife.
Lowenkron said police shouldn’t be the first responders in any of these situations because the vast majority of people with mental illness aren’t actually violent. She wants specific guidelines enshrined in law on when not to call the police and a separate emergency number for mental health calls, since 911 is police-operated.
Also, she said, it’s unforgivable that B-HEARD is currently running 16 hours a day when most calls come in, rather than overnight. “What do you say to your loved one?” asked Lion Crown. “‘Oh honey, could you have that mental health crisis a little later? There’s no one here to help you right now, just hold on.’”