Early Data Shows Sending Mental Health Specialists Instead of Police Works

One New York City attempt at reforming its police department is meeting with early success, and may provide a blueprint for other cities around the country. A pilot program that sends behavioral health specialists to address mental health calls instead of armed police resulted in more people getting help and fewer hospitalizations, according to early data.

They’re calling it the B-HEARD program (Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division) and while right now it’s only operating in Harlem, the numbers are promising enough that the city plans to expand it. The program rerouted about 25 percent of all mental health-related 911 calls to the B-HEARD program, which sent three unarmed behavioral health specialists instead of armed cops to the scene. Once they arrived, about 95 percent of people agreed to accept medical assistance. That’s an improvement over the traditional police response, in which only 82 percent of people accept help.

That’s not all. The traditional police response usually ends up sending about 82 percent of people to the hospital for treatment. The B-HEARD team only sent about half of the people to the hospital, all of whom received follow-up care. 25 percent of the people received treatment at the scene and 20 percent were taken to community health centers.

A 2015 study found that people with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than the rest of the population. That’s why the idea of sending behavioral specialists to mental health calls instead of police picked up steam in Eugene, Oregon, which pioneered the pilot program now being tested in New York City. The thinking was that police aren’t necessarily trained to know how to deal with people dealing with mental health issues, and that sending armed officers might unintentionally escalate a situation in the minds of someone experiencing a severe mental health episode. Trained behavioral specialists are equipped with training and resources that police don’t receive.

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Over the course of the first month, B-HEARD teams only had to call in police assistance seven times, while the police themselves called on a B-HEARD team 14 times. The city plans on gradually expanding the program to see if it continues to produce positive results.

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