NYC program for non-police 911 response still handles a fraction of eligible mental health calls

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By Dan Sears

New York City is slowly expanding the reach of its B-HEARD pilot program, which was launched in 2021 to provide a non-police response to mental health crisis calls and has been touted by advocates as necessary for reducing incidents of police violence.

But B-HEARD still handles just a fraction of the mental health crisis calls to 911 in the areas where it operates, according to the latest city data.

B-HEARD teams expanded to cover 25 of the city’s 77 police precincts and collectively responded to more than 5,000 mental health calls in the first half of 2023. That’s up from about 2,000 during the previous six months, according to data the city released on Wednesday.

But that still only accounted for about a quarter of mental health calls to 911 in participating precincts, up from 16%.

And mental health advocates are pushing for a more comprehensive non-police response.

“What we are looking for is really the removal of the police in all but the rarest of circumstances,” said Ruth Lowenkron, an attorney with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Lowenkron is part of a coalition of advocates pushing for state legislation — known as Daniel’s Law — that aims to further remove police from the equation, including by allowing callers to access special response teams by calling a number other than 911.

B-HEARD now operates in 31 precincts across the city. But data on the program is released on a lag, and the city hasn’t yet distributed information about calls in the second half of 2023 or the start of 2024.

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B-HEARD teams, which include social workers and emergency medical technicians, are designed to de-escalate situations in which someone may be exhibiting signs of a mental health or substance issue, or suicidal ideation, according to a city description of the program. They can provide physical and mental health assessments, and either take people to hospitals or provide assistance on site, or even refer them to other services.

Police are still supposed to be called if someone has a weapon or poses an imminent threat to themselves or others. But city officials acknowledge that B-HEARD does not currently respond to all of the calls it is eligible to handle, or even all of the calls 911 operators attempt to route to its teams.

Part of the problem is a shortage of 911 operators who can appropriately triage the calls, according to the city’s report.

The city seeks to remedy the issue by hiring more 911 staff in 2024 as well as by allowing B-HEARD teams to join or take over the response to some calls that were initially routed to the NYPD or EMS, according to the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

But even when 911 did route calls to B-HEARD, its teams were only able to respond to a little over half of them, according to the city.

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Between January and June of last year, there were 20,692 mental health calls to 911 in the B-HEARD pilot area. Of those, 9,253 calls were routed to B-HEARD, and the teams responded to 5,095 of those calls, or 55%. The rest received a traditional response from the NYPD, EMS or both.

B-HEARD’s hours are also limited. The teams only operate 16 hours a day, and city officials have said in the past that’s partly because hiring social workers for the teams has been a challenge.

Slightly more than a third of the calls B-HEARD teams responded to were de-escalated and handled onsite, in some cases with a referral to other services, according to the city data. Another 6% of people were transported to community-based health care or social service providers and 58% were taken to hospitals.

“B-HEARD has served as a valuable apparatus to reshape the way we address behavioral health crises with public health solutions,” Eva Wong, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health, said in a statement on the data. “We are moving away from an over-reliance on law enforcement as a response to mental health emergencies and bringing needs-focused mental health support to New Yorkers during their most vulnerable moments, which ultimately can have a lasting positive impact on their journey towards recovery.”

There are now 37 B-HEARD mental health workers in the field, just a little more than one for each precinct, according to Nicole Torres, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

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There are also 44 emergency medical worker positions budgeted for the program in the current fiscal year, according to Torres. She did not immediately respond to a question on Wednesday about how many are filled. That’s 20 fewer EMS workers than were previously budgeted for this year before Mayor Eric Adams’ November budget cuts.

Torres told Gothamist in November that city budget cuts reducing the number of staff would not affect existing operations, but would delay further expansion of the program.

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