Following a shocking series of 911 calls about “emotionally distressed persons” that resulted in their police-involved deaths, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams is making a sweeping series of proposals to reduce the number of mental health crises in the city.
He is calling for the city to create a non-NYPD phone number that people can call to get immediate treatment for mental health crises, among other measures aimed at taking many such incidents out of the hands of law enforcement.
“The best answer right now is to make sure there is a better system to help emotionally disturbed people ... long before there is a need to call someone for acute problems,” Williams told the Daily News.
“We need to create a better system in the city to do that,” he added. “Right now we don’t have that to the extent people are languishing.”
Williams is demanding funding for services including “respite care centers, mental health urgent care centers (and) safe havens for people with mental health concerns.”
The goal is to provide 24/7, easy-to-access services to “those neighborhoods that struggle the most with crises.” A forthcoming report from Williams’s office does not specify the neighborhoods, but it pointed to federal stats showing African Americans are 10% more likely to report having serious psychological problems than white people.
He is unveiling the proposals Wednesday amid a huge spike in calls about emotionally distressed persons, or “EDPs” — the NYPD’s term for people in the throes of a mental health crisis, often connoting they are dangerous.
Over the past decade, the number of such calls nearly doubled, from 97,132 in 2009 to 179,569 last year, according to Williams’s office.
Several of those incidents tragically resulted in death.
Police fatally shot 66-year-old Deborah Danner, a Bronx woman living with a mental illness, during an October 2016 encounter.
The same thing happened to 32-year-old Dwayne Jeune in Brooklyn after his mother called 911 asking for help dealing with his erratic behavior.
And in April 2018, a man with mental health issues named Saheed Vassell, 34, was fatally shot after cops confronted him while he was brandishing a metal pipe like it was a gun.
Williams faulted Mayor de Blasio for failing to take action after forming a task force in the wake of Vassell’s death. The public advocate noted the Crisis Prevention and Response Task Force was supposed to produce a report with a citywide strategy for EDP situations within six months, but has yet to do so after more than a year and a half.
“I’m disappointed that this report is not out,” Williams said of the task force.
A spokeswoman for the mayor said the administration has big plans in the works, based on recommendations from the task force.
“As the Public Advocate knows, the City is planning to announce significant new strategies to prevent mental health crises in the coming days," Siobhan Dingwall said in a statement. “We’ve put a great deal of thought into how we can do more to prevent crisis and provide treatment that is sustainable, for the sake of the individuals affected and their families.
"That is why we convened the Crisis Prevention and Response Task Force, and that is why we are ready to announce a new investment that will go even further this week.”
Williams’s other proposals include expedited crisis intervention training for cops. He also says the city should research ways to respond to 911 calls that don’t involve police.
“I think this is a win-win for everyone,” the public advocate said. “I don’t know that police want to be the response system for everything that goes wrong in the city.”
His report noted that the city already has a Mobile Crisis Team, which is part of de Blasio’s NYC Well initiative. The mayor has made mental health one of the top priorities of his administration. But Williams said the Mobile Crisis Teams are only accessible through an 11-digit phone number, and they’re never deployed in response to a 911 call.
Williams emphasized the city should try to prevent mental health crises from arising in the first place.
He said, “I think it’s very clear that New York City has not yet equipped itself in how best to deal with emotionally disturbed people.”