Changing the Police: To Police or Not To Police : Embedded In Yonkers, as in the rest of the country, a substantial number of police calls involve situations where someone is having a mental health crisis. But are cops the right people to answer those calls? A growing number of cities across the country think the answer might be "No." Some have launched crisis response programs that offer alternatives to the police for non-violent mental health emergencies. But in Yonkers, for now, the police still handle these calls. In this episode, Embedded, along with its series partner, The Marshall Project, looks at what happens when the police are the only option people have. And we ask: when it comes to how much the police "police," is less more?

Changing the Police: To Police or Not To Police

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DAN GIRMA, BYLINE: Just a warning before we get started - this episode has some strong language.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Hey, I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

MCEVERS: One day, we were walking in downtown Yonkers with Police Commissioner John Mueller. It was the usual day with him, rushing from one meeting to the next, saying hi to all kinds of people along the way...

JOHN MUELLER: Hey, what's up Reverend Whitney. How you doing, brother?

MCEVERS: And at one point, we walked past a Black woman who is lying on the sidewalk. She's either asleep or passed out, or maybe she has overdosed.

So what are you going to do?

MUELLER: I'm going to call.

MCEVERS: Call who?

This, of course, is a dumb question. The guy who runs the police is going to call the police.

MUELLER: I think I saw Craig Atkins drive by, so...

MCEVERS: That's an officer he saw out on patrol.

MUELLER: Hey, Craig. You out and about, bro? Hey, I got someone passed out opposite the Wells Fargo at 12 - yeah. Thanks, man. All right, bye.

MCEVERS: A man walking by stops and tries to wake the woman up to warn her that authorities will be coming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They calling the ambulance on you. You don't need no ambulance.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You just sleeping. Get up.

MCEVERS: Then a cop shows up. He's white.

MUELLER: Hey, Jimmy. She's just on the other side of the street. Thanks, bro.

MCEVERS: And in these situations, Mueller says the cops will revive the woman if they can or call an ambulance if she needs one. In this case, Mueller is satisfied the woman will get the help she needs. But as he starts walking, I have to ask him a question a lot of people are asking right now.

That woman, what does she need...

MUELLER: Probably...

MCEVERS: ...Like, right now? In that moment when you called the cops - you are the cops, but you...

MUELLER: Yeah.

MCEVERS: ...You can call in the cops.

MUELLER: Yeah, she needs...

MCEVERS: Like, does she need a cop?

MUELLER: Well, the question is, who else do we call? You know, she's passed out on the sidewalk, as far as what I saw when we walked by, right? Did you watch that...

MCEVERS: Right, right. Right now, too. But...

MUELLER: We don't know if she's sleeping.

MCEVERS: ...Is she going to be afraid of a cop...

MUELLER: No.

MCEVERS: ...If they show up?

MUELLER: Not our cops. Not at all.

MCEVERS: That's the kind of situation where, I mean, some people would say call social services.

MUELLER: OK, so what is the dispatch number? Is someone available to go? So when you say call, who do we call? What is their response time? And who is it?

MCEVERS: Right. And so it's like - the argument then is, like, you guys are just faster and more available.

MUELLER: No, what I say is we're the default, whether we should be or not, and it was through no design of our own that, you know, until you can design something as responsive and as rapid as the police for those type of situations, you're going to have to call us.

MCEVERS: And then Mueller changes the subject.

MUELLER: Oh, you know what? I probably should introduce you to Charlie Knight. I don't know if we have time.

MCEVERS: After spending a year reporting on this guy, I can say this is how his brain works - never stops moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: But what Mueller is saying here, he has said to us many times. Yes, there should be a better way. And in some places, there is a better way. But at the time we were talking about this with him, Yonkers still did not have a better way. So that's what we're going to talk about in today's episode - what happens in Yonkers when the only response is the cops and how alternatives to response are starting to work in the New York City area and around the country. That's coming up after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: OK, we're back. And you might remember from our first episode in this series, we talked about another woman. Her name is Sherron Atwell. She's a young Black woman who's well known to the Yonkers police who has addiction and mental health issues. And one day, when we were shadowing the cops, police were called by a gas station worker who said she was trying to light a gas pump with a lighter. Sherron later said she was trying to light a cigarette. Anyway, when a lot of cops, most of them white, showed up, she was upset.

SEAN BERRY: I thought you meant like...

SHERRON ATWELL: Goddamn. All up in my goddamn business.

BERRY: Sherron, you better relax. You better relax.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: You gotta chill out, bro.

BERRY: You better relax.

ATWELL: Come on. Stop asking me dumbass questions then.

BERRY: You better relax.

ATWELL: I better relax?

BERRY: Yeah. Yeah. Calm down.

MCEVERS: Then Officer Sean Berry, who is Black, de-escalated.

BERRY: We're having a bad day today. That's all. It's OK.

MCEVERS: Sean eventually convinced Sherron to get into an ambulance and go to the hospital for a mental health check, where she spent the night. But then she was sent back out again.

GIRMA: That night, Sean Berry's partner, Officer Tom Jackson, told us that, for someone like Sherron, it's either arrest her or take her to the hospital. Those are the only options police have.

TOM JACKSON: The immediate concern is her well-being because she's obviously not in a good state. When someone's in crisis, putting handcuffs on them and hauling them off to jail while they are in crisis typically exacerbates the problem.

MCEVERS: Right.

JACKSON: So let's get her the medical attention she needs...

GIRMA: And if there's enough to press charges later, he says, they will, even though, Jackson admits, arresting her a bunch of times isn't really going to help.

JACKSON: She's been arrested 27 times in Yonkers.

MCEVERS: Jeez.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: She just got out.

JACKSON: So on one level, it's almost like, how good is No. 28 really going to be?

MCEVERS: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

JACKSON: You know, what is that - what good is that going to be for her?

MCEVERS: Right.

JACKSON: No. 28? But at the same time, we have a community to protect. We have to think about the community being safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "JUMPUP")

MCEVERS: We wanted to know, what are the alternatives to a police response for someone like Sherron? Like I said, at the time we were reporting this series, Yonkers didn't have other options. Right next to Yonkers, in the Bronx, there's a pilot program that has been operating for about a year.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And this is station 55 with about 10 units that go out. And downstairs, we have B-Heard. And we have...

MCEVERS: It's called B-Heard, and it's based in a firehouse. The idea is, if someone calls 911 about a mental health crisis and there's no indication of a threat of violence, the call will be routed to B-Heard. In this part of the Bronx, there are a lot of calls like this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It's a neglected community with mental health.

MCEVERS: When a call comes in, an unarmed team of two EMTs, a social worker and a supervisor will be sent out to help in vehicles that look like ambulances. In the first six months of the program, from June to November 2021, New York City says 911 operators diverted 22% of mental health calls to B-Heard teams, that is in the few precincts where the program operates in Harlem and the Bronx. And one thing that's different than a usual police or EMT response, the team tells us, is that it's OK to just take time, sometimes up to an hour, on each call.

MORGAN EVANS: It could be someone who is, you know, actively seeing and hearing voices or someone who's experiencing suicidal thoughts for the first time.

MCEVERS: This is Morgan Evans. She's a full-time social worker with the program.

EVANS: We often respond to calls at schools during my shift for kids who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. We also respond to people who may be adults with developmental disabilities who also have different mental illness or different conditions whether it's PTSD or schizophrenia, bipolar. You know, a crisis is a vulnerable and a pivotal moment. You know, when we meet someone, sometimes, we're meeting them on maybe one of the hardest days or hours of their life.

MCEVERS: While we're talking, a call comes in.

Oh, you guys have to go as well.

EVANS: Oh, we got to go.

MCEVERS: OK.

EVANS: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: OK.

MCEVERS: OK.

EVANS: Yeah?

MCEVERS: Could we be here when you get back? And you could...

The call came from someone who was struggling with depression, the B-Heard folks later told us. Morgan and the team worked with the person and then referred them to treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "TWO DOLLAR TOKEN")

GIRMA: Programs like this have become a big focus of police reform especially after several high-profile incidents where police killed people having a mental health crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Police officers and paramedics in Aurora, Colo., are facing criminal charges after stopping 23-year-old Elijah McClain...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The wife of Rayshard Brooks told us her husband wasn't dangerous and police had no right to shoot him. CBS' Mark Strassmann...

GIRMA: Analysis by The Washington Post found that roughly 1 in 4 people killed by police had a mental health issue.

MCEVERS: These days, a lot of cities are starting programs like B-Heard because research shows that most calls to police do not involve violent crime. One study found that fewer than 3% of calls were for situations involving a violent crime. And programs like this can cost cities less money.

Why don't you just go ahead and say your name and your title?

CHRISTIE THOMPSON: My name is Christie Thompson, and I'm a staff writer for The Marshall Project.

MCEVERS: Christie Thompson covers alternatives to response. We got on a Zoom with her to talk about them.

THOMPSON: I generally call them alternative crisis response or crisis response units.

MCEVERS: Christie says the idea of civilian response teams actually came from Eugene, Ore. It's a college town of just under 200,000 people. In 1989, a program called Cahoots was started to respond to people who were having a mental health crisis.

THOMPSON: And it started as sort of an outreach of a mental health activist group called the White Bird Clinic to see if they could start being kind of the first people to show up to calls instead of police. And it grew from there into this really robust system where they have a fleet of people. They pair one EMT with one mental health care specialist to be the first people to show up to a 911 call that involves a mental health issue where there isn't a weapon present.

MCEVERS: What are some of the data out of the Eugene program that they can point to?

THOMPSON: The last data that I looked up that came out in the spring of 2020 was that they're responding to about 20% of 911 calls. And I think - and that they are, you know, on estimate, saving the city, you know, millions of dollars every year, both in saved hospitalization costs, incarceration costs, and also the cost of police, who are a lot more expensive, going to all of these behavioral health calls. I think the most interesting data point, too, is that they only needed to call police backup in less than 1% of those calls.

MCEVERS: Christie says more than 20 cities are now in the process of launching or have launched programs like this - cities like Portland, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Louisville, D.C., Minneapolis, Houston. And she says new data suggests they're working.

THOMPSON: A big study just came out from Stanford University that looked at the STAR program in Denver, Colo., and it focused on six months of their pilot program there. And they found that reports of less serious crimes in the neighborhoods where the STAR crisis response was operating fell by 34% in those neighborhoods. So that's those people who are not being arrested for having a mental health crisis because they're getting to see a mental health specialist on the street instead.

The study also found that the city was saving hundreds of dollars in each interaction when they had a mental health specialist go out and deal with the situation on the scene, usually resolving it right then and there, instead of having to transport that person and maybe arrest them and incarcerate them and prosecute them or involuntarily hospitalize them for a short period of time.

MCEVERS: I asked Christie what the biggest challenges are to getting programs like these up and running. And She says it's hard to know who the right person is to respond to every call.

THOMPSON: So should a crisis response team be dispatched to a call that involves a weapon? Now, generally, if there's a gun, obviously, that's going to be police response. But what if there's a knife? Or what if it's a suicide call? That seems like something that a crisis response team would be exactly the right people to deal with, but there's a fear that there might be violence, that there could be a weapon involved. And so in a lot of places, those are still being handled by police. The same thing goes with calls that might be happening in a private residence like a domestic violence call. You know, someone trained in de-escalation could be really useful in that situation.

But I think there's still a lot of fear of the unknown of, well, what happens if the worst-case scenario and it escalates and someone - you know, one of those crisis responders gets hurt? But again, I kind of go back to that study that shows that less than 3- to 4% of the calls that we're sending police to actually involve violent crime. So we've gotten very used to the idea that we need an armed police officer to respond to all of these sorts of incidents because of that worst-case potential scenario. But I think a lot of cities are rethinking whether that's actually what they need.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FOUR COUNT")

GIRMA: For Sherron Atwell in Yonkers, the gas station incident was not her last encounter with the police. She wasn't charged that day, but the police told us she was arrested nine more times after this for a total of 36 times since 2016. Officer Sean Berry later told us that as time went on, she got more agitated with the police, tried to assault other officers, and threatened to hurt his family. Another officer helped her get into an outpatient program. Then, in October 2021, police say Sherron was arrested for burglary. She's now in county jail. We tried to visit her, but she declined. We tried to contact her public defender, but he did not respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FELT LINING")

GIRMA: We tried to learn as much as we could about Sherron. On social media, photos from years ago show someone with a full face and a big smile. By the time we saw her, she was much thinner. We tried to talk to Sherron's relatives but could only reach her stepgrandmother. She said Sherron became detached from the family after a close relative died. We also talked to the owner of the gas station where things started that night we shadowed the cops. His name is Gazi Abura, and he knows Sherron well. For years, she panhandled at his gas station. He says the cops just got frustrated with Sherron, and now she's not getting the help she needs.

GAZI ABURA: She needed help mentally. She didn't need to be punished. She just needed help. And unfortunately, I can't facilitate that. I don't have any other things to do other than call the police because my role here at the end of the day, it's the business.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FELT LINING")

MCEVERS: While we were reporting this series, Westchester County, which includes the city of Yonkers, did start a 911 diversion program. And that program is slowly coming online in Yonkers. It's different from B-Heard. There aren't separate, full-time social workers hired to respond to mental health crisis calls. Instead, 911 dispatchers have been trained to route calls to mental health counselors who can help people on the phone, or the call can be routed to a team of crisis responders. Eventually, there will be up to 20 who can go to the scene. But I was told by county officials who run the program, these responders are often accompanied by the cops.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FELT LINING")

MCEVERS: Coming up - when reforming a police department is about one guy, what happens when that guy moves on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: There's a tendency, right? No one's watching the store.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FELT LINING")

MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Dan Girma and me with help from Jasmine Garsd. It was produced and mixed by Dan and also mixed by Lee Hale. It was mastered by Gilly Moon and edited by Jenny Schmidt with help from Bruce Auster and Tony Cavin. Our supervising producer Liana Simstrom. Our researcher is Tracy Brannstrom. Our fact-checker is William Brennan. Our lawyer is Micah Ratner. Our boss is Anya Grundmann. Big thanks to Nicole Beemsterboer and Neal Carruth. Our theme song is by Colin Wambsgans.

We will be back with more from Yonkers next week. Meanwhile, subscribe to this show if you haven't already, and leave us reviews. Tell your friends. Follow us @nprembedded on Twitter. And thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "FELT LINING")

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