Some US cities adopt pilot program that sends EMTs, social workers to mental health 911 calls

WABC logo
Wednesday, February 15, 2023
NYC, other US cities launch pilot program for mental health emergencies
The Be Heard pilot program sends EMS, social workers and EMS to mental health emergencies instead of police officers

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- Some cities including New York are testing out a pilot program that sends teams of EMTs and social workers to mental health emergencies instead of police officers.

The program is called B-Heard, the behavioral health emergency assistance response division that began in New York City in 2021.

"This is a wellness check," FDNY EMT Isha Middleton said. "We're not here to drag you away. When people see police they have a perception of them. And when we come, they see EMTs, fire department, they say hmmm. Now that window is open and we have a chance to go through it."

911 dispatchers send EMTs and social workers instead of police officers to handle nonviolent mental health emergencies with the hope that the result is a peaceful outcome.

"This is a way of bringing care into the crisis," social worker Salley May said. "You see it in the moment. You say, wow, this is different, you know, and you feel it."

This is a crisis response team unlike any other in the city gearing up to hit the streets of New York.

"It's something the city really needed and it's something that never existed before," FDNY Deputy Chief Cheryl Middleton said. "The options were pretty limited. You know, NYPD would show up and the patient would most often end up in the emergency department."

Those very people sometimes enter the hospital in handcuffs, shot, or killed.

People with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, according to a report done by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

In Texas, Patrick Warren Junior says he called 911 asking for a mental health checkup of his father, then his dad was shot and killed by police right in front of him.

And in California, the family of Angelo Quinto says he was depressed and having a mental health episode and died days after an officer allegedly put a knee on his neck, which police deny.

Deaths involving law enforcement like these, have sparked calls for reform across the country.

Cities like Portland, Oregon and Denver, Colorado are just two of many that now have de-escalation programs in place.

And while many say this is a step in the right direction, others are calling for more progress

Mental health advocate Jordyn Rosenthal wants to see B-Heard teams include so-called peers, those with their own mental health diagnosis or experience with a mental health crisis.

"They need to be there because they know what it's like to be the person having a crisis," Rosenthal said.

Right now only about 22% of mental health 911 calls are currently being routed to B-Heard.

Rosenthal says it's not enough.

"We have an oversaturation of calls that are being directed to police," Rosenthal said.

But Jason Hansman the Deputy Director of Mental Health Initiatives in New York City says progress doesn't happen overnight.

"About a year and a half ago, we were still sending cops and EMTs to every mental health call in the city," Hansman said. "We've changed that where, you know, we're responding to about a quarter of the calls. And this is something that's going to take time."

ALSO READ | Watch Operation 7: Save a Life, 25th anniversary edition

Join host Bill Ritter for our 25th annual fire safety special, "Operation 7: Save a Life."