Police Commish, Unions Split Over Mental Health Emergency Plan

Mayor de Blasio shaking hand with Commissioner Dermot Shea at the podium
Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea in November 2019. (Photo credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the debate over shifting police responsibilities to other city agencies rages, New York Police Department officials have found themselves split over a plan that Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced Tuesday.

Starting in February 2021, 911 dispatchers will no longer prioritize sending police officers to mental health-related emergencies. Instead, they will dispatch mental health teams featuring emergency medical services during related crises. Test runs of this alternative are already underway in two high-need precincts.

“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” said de Blasio. “For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need.”

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea welcomed the announcement. “The NYPD looks forward to participating in this important pilot program. The participation of mental health professionals is a long-awaited improvement in the city’s initial response to people in crisis,” said Shea. “Our officers applaud the intervention by health professionals in these nonviolent cases and as always stand ready to assist.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea headshot (Photo source: NY State Government)
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea

But Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch is wary of this shift in responsibilities. “Police officers know that we cannot single-handedly solve our city’s mental health disaster, but this plan will not do that, either. It will undoubtedly put our already-overtaxed EMS colleagues in dangerous situations without police support,” he said.

Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch headshot (Photo source: NYC Police Benevolent Association facebook page)
Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch

“We need a complete overhaul of the rest of our mental health care system so that we can help people before they are in crisis, rather than just picking up the pieces afterward. On that front, the de Blasio administration has done nothing but waste time and money with ThriveNYC and similar programs. We have no confidence that this long-delayed plan will produce any better results.”

Still, Linda Rosenberg of the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry and former CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health made clear she considered this plan a step in the right direction. 

“Mental illness is not a crime, but we call upon the police as first responders in a mental health crisis. Now, New York City is changing the outdated and dangerous use of police that too often has led to injury and even death. The decision to have health professionals respond to mental health crises underscores New York City’s commitment to caring for not punishing people with mental illnesses,”