Mental Health Pilot Program in New York City Shows Promising Results as an Alternative to the Police

In 2020, the deaths of Daniel Prude and Angelo Quinto at the hands of the police sparked public outrage and prompted calls for police reform — particularly when it comes to individuals suffering from mental health crises. A new program in New York City, the most densely populated city in the United States, shows early promising signs of being a workable model as an alternative to police intervention, reducing hospitalizations while increasing effective de-escalation — including the number of people accepting the offer for mental health counseling.

NBC News reports that the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division (B-HEARD) program has already responded to “about 110 calls where there was no weapon or imminent risk of violence.”

Launched in June 2021 in Harlem, New York, B-HEARD employs a three-person team of social workers instead of cops and paramedics when a 911 dispatcher deems a call to be a mental health crisis.

“In 95% of those cases, the city said, the subject of the call accepted the team’s offer of assistance,” NBC News reported, noting that the rate for acceptance of help during the old police officer/paramedic model was 82%.

NBC News also noted that the form of assistance is also changing. In the old model, almost all subjects were driven to the hospital by default, whereas in the newer B-HEARD model, 50% of people were taken home or brought to a nonemergency community center.

Studies have shown that people with untreated mental illnesses are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement despite the majority of them not posing a threat to others.

In October 2020, the ACLU discussed the need to address mental health crises without involving the police and outlined alternatives to police intervention, from community-based networks to deploying mental health counselors. Since then, programs like Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in Eugene, Oregon; Community Action Team (CAT)-911 in Los Angeles; and Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, California (M.A.C.R.O.) have all launched to varying levels of success.

One common concern or criticism of these community-based and mental-health-forward programs is the safety of the first responders, but according to NBC News, backup from the NYPD was only needed seven times. On the other hand, the city said the NYPD called B-HEARD 14 times after responding to a call and realizing “police services weren’t needed.”

“The fact that they have only asked for police backup seven times in all of these cases, to us, shows that we’re screening cases appropriately and [B-HEARD is] responding to cases where the mental health crisis is really what’s dominant,” said Susan Herman, senior advisor to the Mayor and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health.

NBC News reported that B-HEARD currently responds to 25% of daily mental health calls in the pilot region, but the city is working on expanding the program’s reach to 50%.