Where “Defund” Isn’t Dead

November 29, 2021
Bryce Covert
The Nation

A few months ago, Salley May showed up at a mosque in Harlem where a woman was having a mental health crisis, holding children inside and refusing to allow people in or out. About 50 onlookers had gathered outside, as well as a large number of police officers.

May, a social worker, talked to the cops, “and we got them to cross the street,” she said, where they stayed. An emergency medical technician from the New York Fire Department took over managing the situation. He was able to enter the building and talk to the woman, to “really engage” with her, May said. He and May eventually brought her husband to the scene. The tense situation was resolved without violence.

May and her EMT partner are part of the city’s new Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, or B-HEARD, a pilot program that provides a nonpolice response to mental health emergencies. Before it was launched, when a New York resident called 911 about a mental health emergency, the police were almost always part of the response. Now, in cases in the pilot precincts that don’t involve weapons or an imminent risk of harm, mental health experts are dispatched instead. When May and her team show up, there are often people gathered around with their phones out, prepared to record any police abuse. But onlookers seem to understand that B-HEARD responders represent a different approach. “They lower their cameras when they see us,” May said.

At the height of the protests over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, demonstrators across the country started to make a potent demand: “Defund the police.” The call came after years of activism, largely unsuccessful, to reduce bloated police budgets and increase funding for other social services, and it coincided with a moment when the finances of many cities and states appeared dire. The pandemic had cost tens of millions of people their jobs and shuttered hundreds of thousands of businesses, depriving governments of tax revenue just as more spending was required to keep the needy afloat. Lawmakers in over a dozen cities pledged to shift resources and change the way they responded to public safety, moving away from police and toward supports like mental health counseling and housing assistance.

Things look different a year later. Thanks to federal pandemic relief funds, many city budgets are far less pinched. Streets are empty of the constant protests against police brutality and racism. A rise in the murder rate, especially in a few large cities, has pushed some local governments that had reduced police budgets last year to increase them, as in New York City, where this year’s budget raises funding for the NYPD by $200 million. And the phrase “Defund the police” has been co-opted by the opposition to scare people away from the idea of reform—it’s become “so politicized,” said Tracie Keesee, a cofounder of the national Center for Policing Equity. Some Democrats claimed that the slogan hurt them in the 2020 elections.

Even so, the fight to enact meaningful change grinds on at the local level in many cities. Some, like New York, are reconsidering who should show up when a resident is in need of help. Some are shifting police responsibilities to unarmed officers. Some have reduced police budgets and reinvested the money in social services like public health and affordable housing—investments that are meant to prevent people from committing crimes in the first place.

“Probably the biggest conversation is, ‘How are you defining public safety beyond just a police response? What does that infrastructure or those resources to make those things happen look like?’” Keesee said. In many places there have been significant steps forward alongside disappointing backward slides. “It’s messy,” Keesee said. “But it goes on.”

On her second day as the director of the disability justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Ruth Lowenkron read that the NYPD had killed Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old Black woman who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was having a mental health episode, in her own home. That was five years ago; since then, more than a dozen New Yorkers, the majority of them Black, have been killed by the police while experiencing mental health crises, including Kawaski Trawick, a 32-year-old with a history of mental illness who was shot and killed by police in his apartment in 2019 less than two minutes into the encounter. “The response to mental health crises is a crisis, to put it quite bluntly,” Lowenkron said. “We’re not doing things the right way, and we need to change.”

Salley May could, possibly, be part of that change. She never thought she’d leave her job on a crisis response team at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. But when she got a call asking her to join B-HEARD, her teenage children, who had been active in that summer’s protests, told her she had to do it. She jumped into five weeks of training on everything from motivational interviewing of people in distress to situational awareness—knowing where best to stand during crisis situations. Team members role-played de-escalation scenarios. Police, 911 operators, and EMTs who work in the pilot precincts were trained as well. “Leadership came and said, ‘The world is watching this program,’” May told me.

B-HEARD, she said, “is an entirely different approach” than what she was used to. When she worked at Bellevue, things often got “territorial” between her team, the EMTs, and the police. But now, instead of “immediately pathologizing” the person they respond to, B-HEARD teams are “just making sure you’re safe, making sure you’re OK,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for this kind of program.”

Instead of sending everyone who needs care to the hospital, May now sends some to the East Harlem Support and Connection Center, which has doctors and peer counselors and offers health services, food, beds, and showers 24 hours a day. Patients are able to stay for up to five days and can return on their own later if they need more help; as of late June, nearly half had done so, according to city data. The city plans to open another support center in the Bronx in a few months and hopes to eventually open more across the boroughs.

“We are thrilled that the city is finally thinking about something that is nonpolice,” Lowenkron said. Before the Black Lives Matters demonstrations, advocates struggled merely to institute robust training for police responding to mental health crises. The protests shifted the conversation to getting police out of the response altogether. The pilot isn’t a co-response team involving police, though the cops often get to the scene first or are called later. With traditional emergency calls, over 80 percent of the people are transported to a hospital, but for the first three months of the B-HEARD program, only about 50 percent of those helped by its teams were. A quarter were helped where they were, and about 20 percent were transported to community care centers. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for spending $112 million on B-HEARD, which should be enough to implement the new approach citywide.

Still, advocates had expected New York City to go much further in the wake of the 2020 protests. At the height of the unrest, City Council members pledged to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s budget. But while the council claimed that it had reduced the budget by that amount, much of the reduction was accomplished through accounting mechanisms instead of actual cuts. Police were exempt from a hiring freeze that hit most other city workers. “The City Council just paid a lot of lip service to being committed to reforms,” said Ileana Méndez-Peñate, of Communities United for Police Reform. “We’re asking for a budget that radically shifts how money is spent away from criminalization.”

For Méndez-Peñate, the city’s attempt at reform does not represent enough of a shift. B-HEARD “creates another system that still centers police. It actually entrenches a police response rather than removes it,” she said. “New York City really needs a holistic and really well-thought-out mental health response.”

Topics: NYC Budget Justice