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New Pilot Program Has FDNY EMTs, Mental Health Crisis Workers Respond To 911 Calls Involving Mentally Ill Individuals Without NYPD

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- A big change may be coming to how the city deals with 911 calls involving mentally ill individuals.

The mayor announced a new pilot program that will put health professionals in charge of these calls. It's sparking a lot of reaction and criticism, CBS2's Andrea Grymes reports.

In October 2016, police were called to the Bronx apartment of 66-year-old Deborah Danner, a woman who suffered from schizophrenia.

The responding sergeant convinced her to drop a pair of scissors but shot and killed her when she grabbed a bat and stepped towards him.

MORE -- NYC To Pay Family Of Deborah Danner $2 Million Settlement

Neighbors say Danner's mental illness was well-known.

"I could tell myself she wasn't right," neighbor Maria Nieves said.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio is trying to make sure people like Danner get the help they need.

He announced a new pilot program, headed up by his wife, Chirlane McCray, in two not-yet-selected city neighborhoods.

Teams of specially trained FDNY EMTs and mental health crisis workers will respond to 911 calls involving mentally ill individuals.

Currently, EMTs and the NYPD respond to nearly all of these calls no matter what they entail.

RELATED STORY -- Daniel Prude Death: Rochester Mayor Admits System Failed, Police Association Says Officers Are Being Scapegoated

"We will fundamentally change the approach to mental health emergencies in this city," de Blasio said.

McCray says of the 170,000 911 mental health calls in 2019, the vast majority were non-violent.

The mayor's office and the FDNY say police will be called in as part of the new team if a weapon is involved or there's any threat of harm. They say the health professional will coordinate the effort.

"It is of great importance to us that our members are safe," FDNY First Deputy Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said.

RELATED STORY -- Family Of Man Allegedly Put In Illegal Chokehold By NYPD Officers Says System Fails People With Mental Illness

But the union representing FDNY EMTs says not so fast.

"This is a highly dangerous situation to our EMTs and paramedics at," Local 2507 President Oren Barzilay said.

Barzilay says he won't allow his members to respond to these calls without the NYPD.

"On a daily basis, our members get assaulted as is, with the police present," he said.

The Police Benevolent Association released a statement, also calling the program dangerous:

"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. 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."

"It's only going to take, unfortuantely, one violent encounter where a social worker, EMS worker, somebody gets hurt, and then the police are going to have to go to every one of these calls anyway," said Joe Giacalone, a retired NYPD member and John Jay College adjunct professor.

The mayor's office says extensive training starts now.

The pilot program is expected to begin in February with a goal of one day rolling it out citywide.

The FDNY says EMS workers and the union will be intricately involved in planning the program over the next few months.


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