Public Advocate Advances Bill Creating Mental Health Emergency Phone Line

February 22nd, 2021

Press Release

Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams called for passage of his bill to create a three-digit hotline used for mental health emergencies, as an alternative to 911, at a hearing of the Committee on Mental Health, Disabilities, and Addiction today. The new number - 988 - would help ensure that mental health crises are met by health professionals, rather than law enforcement. Watch the hearing online.

The bill, Intro 2222, would require the Office of Community Mental Health - which would be separately established under legislation from Council Member Diana Ayala - to institute the hotline staffed by mental health call operators. The Office would train call operators in the mental health emergency response protocol and conduct public outreach and education publicizing the 988 number.

"Mental health should not be seen or responded to as an untreated public threat," said Public Advocate Williams of the bill. "I hope through our legislative process, we can collectively create a crisis response where persons living with mental health diagnosis feel safe in their communities and know they'll receive the proper care that they need. I also hope that we can bring healing to families that have experienced a loss or any trauma as a result of the system we now have in place now."

In the past six years, at least sixteen people undergoing a mental health crisis were killed by NYPD  officers - notably, fourteen were people of more color. Prominent cases in recent years have included Deborah Danner, Mohamed Bah, Saheed Vassell, Dwayne Jeune, and Kawaski Trawick, among others.

In his 2019 report, Improving New York City's Responses to Individuals in Mental Health Crisis, Public Advocate Williams led calls for mental health crises to be met with a public health response rather than law enforcement. A separate emergency phone line was among the recommendations in that report.

The Public Advocate noted today that the movement to a non-police response in mental health crisis is as complex as it is necessary, saying, "I know this is a difficult conversation. It is one that elicits fear. It is one that changes the dynamic. For too long, our equating of public safety and police has brought us a system that we know needs to be changed. We have to find a system that allows people to bring the tools and expertise they have to the situations at hand."

Read the full statement from the Public Advocate for today's hearing below.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS TO THE COMMITTEE ON MENTAL HEALTH, DISABILITIES, AND ADDICTION - HEARING FEBRUARY 22, 2021

Good morning, Thank you so much, Madam Chair. As mentioned, My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. I want to thank Chair Farah Louis for holding today's hearing on a vital topic and give a huge congratulations to the first hearing that you're chairing. I look forward to the excellent leadership I know you're going to provide on this issue and many others in this Committee.

A few years ago, when I was a Council Member, I will never forget, I was doing, I believe it was a gun violence press conference with Borough President Eric Adams. In the middle of it, a woman ran up, got on her knees, and was begging us for help for her son who was in a mental health crisis. It was a very emotional time, but I remember her specifically saying how terrifying she was to call 911. She didn't want to call 911 because they would "kill him." Those were the words she used. That has been seared into my brain, remembering that. At that point, understanding intersecting issues brought up there. The need for her to get some real care for her son. And also the things we were doing to police officers. Places we were sending them without the tools or training and asking them to solve a problem they simply don't have the capacity to solve. On all sides, we are setting up people for failing.

For far too long, our City's response to mental health calls has been a failure. Police officers are dispatched as first responders for people struggling with mental illness. In addition, access to a continuum of care is in effect non-existent for a large part of the population. In some cases, this can be fatal. In the past six years, at least 16 people undergoing a mental health crisis were killed by officers. Notably, 14 were people of more color. That is both devastating and a significant reason as to why the New York Police Department cannot respond to mental health calls as first responders. My first report, in September of 2019, we put out a report on how badly we were doing in handling mental health crises. I just want to congratulate the City Council for putting this hearing and actually going headstrong into dealing with this and beginning to reframe what public safety is.

After many years of waiting, we have the opportunity to change our response. Intro 2210, prime sponsored by Council Member Ayala, shifts mental health responses from the NYPD into a new office within the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Units of mental health clinicians and peers will respond to mental health emergencies within 30 minutes of a call. These teams will follow up with calls among other things mentioned.

In addition to that, my legislation, Intro 2222, creates a three-digit hotline as an alternative to 911. Right now, we only have a criminal response to whatever has known to be a mental health crisis. The newly-created office would hire operators to respond to calls. Any mental health-related calls going through 311 or 911 are redirected through the new three-digit hotline. Calls will not be directed to 911 unless an operator determines there is a public safety emergency. Finally, the hotline becomes available no later than December 31, 2021.

Currently, the NYC Well system is used for mental health calls. In 2019, there were around 170,000 mental health-related calls. Yet, those calls went through 911. There must be a convenient and easy-to-remember number rather than the City's long 11-digit NYC Well system. That is why the bill will create a three-digit number, 988, that will redefine our response system.

These bills offer a chance for us to rectify the failure of our mental health response. Cities such as Eugene, Oregon, Olympia, Washington, and others, have already implemented non-police or limited police responses. We must follow these examples and go bold with any idea presented. New Yorkers deserve a plan that addresses mental health as a public health issue, not a policing issue.

However, we have to be more intentional. These bills must do more to explain the role of when and if the police department would get involved. The definition of "public safety emergency" - a "crime in progress, violence, or a situation likely to result in imminent harm or danger to the public, as defined by" the newly-created Office of Community Mental Health, in its vagueness may cause unintended confusion. How will a person interpret violence or a situation that may result in harm? Interpretation is left up to the office or, realistically, the operator. What happens if police are mistakenly told of a person likely to create harm? This is not a hypothetical. As was mentioned here, police responded to a call that Saheed Vassell, a 34-year-old Black man living with bipolar disorder, held a gun. Police arrived and fatally shot Vassell, who actually held a pipe not a gun. Also mentioned was the tragic case of Dwayne Jeune that happened in the district I represented several years ago. That tragic event, and many others, highlights the potential danger that can result from one wrong decision or a misinterpretation. If this is not delved into more intentionally, I fear more lives may be lost.

We have seen far too many incidents where the inclusion of officers in unpredicted situations wrongfully escalate. Mental health should not be seen or responded to as an untreated public threat. I understand that many of the advocates & providers we'll hear from today are concerned with the codification of co-response teams and many other features in both of these bills. What we should ensure is the codification that police are no longer the first responders when New Yorkers are in acute Mental Health Crisis. I believe Council Member Ayala, Council Member Cornegy, and the Chair and I are deeply committed to getting this right, and I'm sure we welcome any feedback on how we best improve the bills.

Today's hearing is the first step in the right direction as we're identifying the City's existing problem: an ineffective mental health response. We know there are other professionals and peers in our communities that are better equipped to address mental health crises than the police. I hope through our legislative process, we can collectively create a crisis response where persons living with mental health diagnosis feel safe in their communities and know they'll receive the proper care that they need.

I also hope that we can bring healing to families that have experienced a loss or any trauma as a result of the system we now have in place now. I know this is a difficult conversation. It is one that elicits fear. It is one that changes dynamics. For too long, our equation of public safety to police has brought us a system that we know needs to be changed. We have to also remember that when something goes wrong, if something went wrong, everyone will say, 'Where were the police'? We have to change that dynamic and reliance on police. Because we know even when police are there, things go wrong and people are killed. We have to find a system that allows people to bring the tools and expertise they have to the situations at hand. Right now, we're not doing that. I thank the Chair for allowing me to speak. I look forward to today's testimony.

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