Last year, the New York Police Department responded to more than 87,000 calls having to do with emotionally disturbed persons, or "EDPs," the department’s label for people with mental illness. The majority of such cases are handled by regular police officers, who receive 14.5 hours of training on topics such as identifying mental illnesses and interacting with people affected by them. Their efforts are supplemented by a specialized response team called the Emergency Service Unit, or ESU, whose 400 officers receive 16 hours of tactical training and 40 hours of emergency psychological training, and are called in to respond to difficult situations.

In response to several recent police shootings of people with mental illnesses—including the separate deaths in November of unarmed 18-year-old Khiel Coppin and 29-year-old David Kostovski—the city is starting to re-examine its approach to such cases. The NYPD and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene have convened a "Link Committee" comprised of agency representatives, mental health advocates and consumers, lawyers, and researchers to assess NYPD policies and procedures. Similarly, City Council held a hearing on Feb. 28 to call on the NYPD to continually review its approach to people with mental illnesses. The Link Committee has restarted this year after a lull caused by the Nov. 2005 death of NYPD Deputy Training Commissioner James Fyfe, who is widely credited with initiating progress in this area.

One of the things the Link Committee likely will discuss is the models used around the country to guide interactions with people with mental illnesses. One of the more popular and well-regarded approaches is the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) model, which started in Memphis in 1988 and has proven effective there and elsewhere. Under the CIT model, officers who volunteer to participate in the program receive 40 hours of specialized training to learn how to more effectively interact with individuals with mental illness. These officers are then the first to respond to emergency calls that bring them into direct contact with people with mental illnesses.

City Limits reporter Tram Whitehurst and editor Karen Loew sat down last week with a panel of specialists to discuss the challenges and possibilities of police interactions with people with mental illnesses in New York City. The NYPD and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene both declined our invitation to participate.

The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC continued this discussion on March 27. To listen, click here.

What follows is our wide-ranging conversation with:

Spencer Eth, M.D., vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at New York Medical College, and senior vice president and medical director of behavioral health services of the Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers of New York. Eth served on the first Mental Health Advisory Committee, and has consulted with the NYPD police academy on officer training issues.

Fred Levine, attorney, mental health advocate and public policy consultant. Levine has consulted with the NYPD on its training of officers, and currently participates in the police academy’s training on EDPs. Affected by bipolar disorder himself, Levine was a member of the original Mental Health Advisory Committee, and now serves on the Link Committee.

Amanda Masters, senior staff attorney and coordinator of the Opportunity and Access Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI). Masters represents the mother of Kevin Cerbelli, a mentally ill man who was shot and killed by police, in a lawsuit against the NYPD. She is also the treasurer of the National Police Accountability Project and founder of the New York City Policing Roundtable.

Louise Pyers, president and founder of Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE). Pyers has worked with police departments across Connecticut to implement the CIT model. She is a certified police instructor in critical incident stress management, suicide intervention and citizens with special needs.

Melissa Reuland, senior research consultant at Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), based in Washington, D.C. Reuland was the project director for the Law Enforcement track of the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s Criminal Justice/Mental Health Consensus Project. She has been researching the policing people of with mental illnesses for 15 years. (Reuland participated via teleconference.)

Collaboration between police and mental health professionals

Fred Levine: There is one glaring thing that is on the top of my thoughts this morning and that is the need for the NYPD and for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to coordinate their activities. When this is done well, the NYPD could receive up-to-date information from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on what is the latest and the state of the art in interacting with people who have emotional distress. Unfortunately, in the past four years there was no discernible communication between the NYPD and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But in the absence of a good working relationship, the NYPD will be left to its own devices to have to develop these training materials.

Spencer Eth: I think the issue of what we are really addressing is the issue of violence and the management of violence, and the police have protocols to manage dangerous and violent people. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals also have protocols, and in an ideal world we all would share the knowledge and work together to minimize harm. Sadly, this is not done effectively and the two systems tend to operate fairly independently, and that is to the detriment of people with mental illness who are violent to both the police and to mental health professionals. And it’s unfortunate because this is a city in which there is a very sophisticated police department, a very knowledgeable mental health community. I think each new event, which seems random, calls to attention the need for this. The most recent event in which the victim was a clinical psychologist [the stabbing of Kathryn Faughey last month] again reminds us that we need more effective collaboration, because the danger is not going to go away.