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Mental Health Advocates Rally to Replace 911


HOST, ISABELLE TEARE:

This week, a coalition of mental health organizations rallied at City Hall.

The group is calling on New York to remove police as first responders to mental health crisis calls and increase funding for an alternative system.

Tricia Stortz reports.


TRICIA STORTZ:

Everyone knows the numbers 911.

If you call it, you get the police.

Whether the police are the best responders or not.


On Tuesday morning, a small group of Mental Health advocates carried signs and chanted outside of City Hall… ….They called on city officials to send EMTs, social workers and peers instead of police.


AMBI - [protest chanting]

"Peers not police! Peers not police! Peers not police!"


STORTZ:

Felix Guzman was at the rally. He is a certified peer… someone living with a mental illness who has also been trained in basic forms of crisis response.


FELIX GUZMAN:

We need to remove police as principal responders and leave peers to be the focal point… because who better to de escalate a crisis than someone who has gone through it themselves.


STORTZ:

Police are trained to stop violent offenders and use lethal force if necessary. But in a mental health crisis… they can actually make things worse. Solomon Acevedo, is the city’s deputy public advocate of Justice, Health Equity and Safety.


SOLOMON ACEVEDO:

We know that encountering police is something extremely triggering for folks who have serious mental illness and usually ends in a physical confrontation and not the healthcare that people deserve to be connected to.


STORTZ:

The organizations leading the charge want to emphasize that there are already systems in place to take care of people in crisis.


There’s a pilot program called B-HEARD. It was launched by The Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health during the pandemic.


B-HEARD sends EMTs and social workers as alternative mental health crisis first responders.

But Acevedo says that when people call 911…


ACEVEDO:

Although calls are being routed in NYC to the B-HEARD project, the people who are answering the phones are still defaulting to police 82% of the time according to the city.


STORTZ:

This is why advocates are pushing the city to expand an alternative to 911.

It’s another phone number… 988.


AMBI - [phone dialing...]

“You’ve reached the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline… we are here to help”


There are numbers to push if you are LGBTQ… Another number for Veterans in crisis. Eventually if you stay on the line… you might be routed to B-HEARD.


But it can be confusing.


STORTZ:

Dr. Dave Chokshi, former Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says, sure… it’s nice to have lots of resources… .


DR. DAVE CHOKSHI:

... But, sometimes that results in complexity that makes it very difficult for someone to figure out what is actually going to help them in a time of need… so I do think that this is a primary role of the government to do that knitting together and to make it seamless so that there is one number for example for people to call…

STORTZ:

Dr. Chokshi also says that it isn’t feasible to eliminate the role of law enforcement entirely. But, he agrees with the need to invest in peers.


DR. CHOKSHI:

There's very likely a ready partnership for something like that to continue to be expanded upon but the devil is often in the details… You can’t have a roving team of 16 people even if all of the 16 will have specific assets that they’re able to offer.


STORTZ:

The city has increased the budget for 988 from $35 million to $65 million in the upcoming fiscal year. But, advocates say even with more funding these programs can’t remain pilot projects… they have to be incorporated into the city’s main healthcare system so that all mental health crisis calls receive a medical response. Tricia Stortz, Columbia Radio News.


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