First Responders Helping Rescue Team (via Tashi-Delek on iStock)

Earlier this spring, New York City launched B-HEARD (Behavioral Health Emergency Assistant Response Division), a program where licensed physical and mental health professionals respond to certain mental health emergency calls instead of the police. The program recently released its first month of data showing some significant areas of success, with more people receiving the emergency mental health assistance they needed, fewer hospital transports that might force people to incur heavy medical expenses, and increased follow-up care. 

But alongside the positive statistics, the data also solidified some concerns that mental health advocates raised immediately prior to the program’s launch: that dispatchers have too much discretion in choosing to deploy police instead of B-HEARD, and that the teams themselves may not be robust enough to meet the vast needs of those living in the community. 

As reported by Prism, the city piloted B-HEARD in Zone 7, three precincts across East Harlem and parts of Central Harlem that have historically produced a high volume of mental health-related 911 calls. The program aims to “increase connection to community-based care, reduce unnecessary transports to hospitals, and reduce unnecessary use of police resources,” and so far has made strides toward those goals

There are currently two sets of B-HEARD teams working 8-hour shifts, with teams rotating two shifts per day. While the current data shows several areas of success for the program, it does suggest the need for more teams to be made available. Although B-HEARD teams responded to 80% of calls routed to them, the NYPD responded to the remaining 20% because B-HEARD teams were busy responding to another call. Given that roughly 500 mental health related calls were made during the pilot’s first month, B-HEARD teams will need to scale up to fully meet the community’s needs. However, in a statement to Prism, the city announced they do not currently have plans to expand the number of teams.  

Local mental health advocates are continuing to push for the city to grow the program, and to address earlier critiques citing the lack of peer support for callers in B-HEARD’s response teams and the need for more personnel with lived experience responding to crises in the Harlem community. Advocates also expressed concerns about the program’s relationship with the NYPD and questioned whether it might stymie the program’s overall efficacy, and the data suggests those worries are justified. B-HEARD was only deployed for 25% of all mental health-related 911 calls made from Zone 7. While the city projects this percentage will rise to 50% in the coming months, the fact that relatively few callers are placed in contact with B-HEARD teams is still concerning. Currently, police are deployed to mental health crisis calls for situations “in subways or involving violence, weapons, imminent harm, criminality, or other circumstances requiring law enforcement assistance.” Additionally, 911 dispatchers have wide discretion in choosing which calls merit a B-HEARD team response as opposed to the NYPD, so whether or not B-HEARD teams are used depends on the judgement of individual emergency dispatchers. 

Correct Crisis Intervention Today-New York City (CCIT-NYC), a coalition of activists, community members, and nonprofit members working to transform how New York City responds to the 200,000+ mental health crisis calls currently handled by the NYPD, has worked to develop a very narrow definition of what constitutes as a public safety threat in order to decrease the likelihood of police deployment in mental health crisis situations. Cal Hedigan, CEO of Community Access, a CCIT-NYC member organization nonprofit serving people living with mental health concerns, says that giving dispatchers such wide latitude in defining “imminent harm” may allow them to fall on “business as usual.”

“We would like the pilot to be really seeking 100% of the people who are in crisis, because to not do that is to risk someone being harmed or killed when the people coming to help are law enforcement officers,” said Hedigan.

Hedigan also pointed out how including “the presence of a weapon” as criteria for continued police deployment under B-HEARD continues to put more people at risk, particularly given the expansive definition of what counts as a weapon.

“In so many of the situations where people have lost their lives, there have been a range of instruments that are described as weapons,” Hedigan told Prism this spring. “Whether that’s a pipe being mistaken for a gun [or] whether that’s someone who is scared in the context of their home who might have picked up a butter knife out of fear. It’s the difference between how nail scissors could be used as a weapon versus garden shears.”

The apparent underutilization of the B-HEARD response team illustrates the limitations of linking the NYPD to mental health emergency response systems. It’s also why some advocates have been pushing for a separate call line specifically for mental health crises. Residents who call 911 for a mental health emergency still cannot even specifically request a B-HEARD team—instead,they have to hope that the dispatcher they speak with won’t choose to send police in response to their call. So far there aren’t any plans to separate mental health emergencies from 911.

While the initial data has supported mental health advocates’ concerns about how NYPD involvement affects B-HEARD’s overall effectiveness, it also revealed considerable success in the outcomes where B-HEARD teams responded to calls. Supporters of defunding the police have uplifted the program’s results as a major victory that reveals the power and life-saving potential of non-police responses. However, B-HEARD’s model itself isn’t run by redirecting funds from the NYPD. Funding for the program—which amounts to over $1 million for this fiscal year and is projected to be $2.5 million for next year—comes from the FDNY and NYC Health + Hospitals, not the NYPD.

As both the city and advocates keep a close eye on the program’s successes and gaps, B-HEARD could still serve as a potential model for communities across the country. Since last year, similar programs that divert police away from mental health emergencies have either been newly-developed in other cities, such as MH First in Oakland, or have garnered increased support after years of work within their communities, such as the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative in Atlanta. While B-HEARD looks promising, it’s worthwhile noting how internal barriers, such as a continued relationship with the police, might be preventing the program from addressing mental health crises as effectively and safely as possible.

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.