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Police are not equipped to handle mental health crises

By Candacé King on September, 22 2023

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Daniel Prude should have been celebrating 45 years of life this week, but Rochester police officers tragically cut his life short in March 2020 during a response to an emergency mental health episode.  

Daniel, known affectionately as “Scoop” by family and friends, was remembered for being the family comedian. Yet while he brought smiles and laughter to his family, he also struggled with deeper issues and needed help. Daniel is a trauma survivor who had to deal with the death of his two siblings, one by hit and run and another from gun violence. His visit to his brother, Joe, in upstate New York was his family’s way of getting him on the path to healing. 

When Daniel experienced a flair up with his mental health during that visit, his sister-in-law, Valerie, reached out to 911 for help. However, her plea for assistance was met with incompetence and unnecessary force. He was already unclothed bearing the harsh elements of the snowy roads in Rochester when police restrained and gagged him using a “spit hood.” He later died from asphyxiation.  

Make no mistake, Daniel’s death was highly preventable. Instead of treating and addressing his mental illness which would have saved his life, police treated Daniel as a threat to public safety. In doing so, the system failed him and his family. What’s worse is that these deaths are becoming far too commonplace. Around the same time three years later, NYPD officers shot and critically injured 42-year-old Raul de la Cruz, who was experiencing a schizophrenic episode. His father, Santo de la Cruz, called 311 for medical intervention. “I called [311] instead because I didn’t want something bad to happen,” de la Cruz told Gothamist in Spanish. 

New York police officers are failing in their response to mental health crises. The deadly procedures that police take and their lack of awareness in these instances mean that those who struggle with mental health issues do not get the help that they need. More than 50 million adults are living with a mental illness in the United States and according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than half of the people killed by police have some form of disability. Recent reports regarding police misconduct with mental health not only reveal that such blunders are due to incompetence, but also blatant negligence. In July, Politico reported that the special 24/7 hotline that helps NYPD officers manage mentally ill cases went virtually untouched as of July. The hotline, which went live on Jan. 31, was part of Mayor Eric Adam’s directive to address the mental health issues within NYC’s homelessness crisis.   

With the NYPD’s disregard for mental health resources, U.S. communities are taking matters into their own hands. In fact, a recent report from the Associated Press demonstrated that at least 14 of the 20 most populous cities including New York, Los Angeles, and Houston, are removing police from responding to 911 calls and instead sending behavioral health clinicians.  

However, these efforts are not going far enough in NYC. Although programs like the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division (B-HEARD) were initially created to address mental health emergencies as a “health issue, not a public safety problem,” most mental health calls are still routed to the police. This protocol only brings the issue back to the front door of where it started. As Daniel’s Day is celebrated in Crown Heights this weekend, perhaps it is time NYC seriously considers endorsing Daniel’s law, which makes mental health professionals the default response to mental health emergencies instead of police. In doing so, we can ensure that not only more lives are spared from unnecessary deadly police force, but also so that those who struggle with mental health challenges can actually get the support they need to live healthy and whole lives to thrive. 

Daniel Prude and Raul de la Cruz were not an immediate threat to anyone or the officers. They did not need additional force, they needed help. Hours before his arrest, Daniel Prude pleaded with 911 dispatchers, “Save my life, please.” 

Rochester officers ended Daniel’s life. It’s time we recognize that police officers are not equipped to handle mental health crises.

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