Eudes Pierre was brandishing a small pink knife on the street early one morning last December. When he headed into Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue subway station, officers converged on the scene. Fearing he had a gun in his pocket, they kept their distance. Police later said Pierre had attempted suicide in the past, and his family said he had been treated for mental illness.
“You okay pal, you need help?” one officer asked, according to body-worn camera footage released by the state Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the incident. “We’re here to help you, dude. Just put the knife down. If you put it down we can talk, and get you help … Nobody wants to get hurt here.”
But somebody did get hurt. Officers couldn’t subdue Pierre with Tasers. Soon enough he walked up the stairs of the station, prompting officers to draw their guns and call for cover. When he ran into the street -- police later said he was running toward a cop -- two officers shot him 10 times, the video shows. He was handcuffed. Officers then administered first aid until the ambulance arrived 10 minutes later. Pierre, 26, a deliveryman for Uber Eats who was on a leave from his studies at the College of Staten Island, died at the hospital.
“If there was someone there just to listen to him,” said Rohlan Pierre, his older brother, moments after viewing videos of the shooting. “Because that’s probably all he really wanted and needed, was somebody to just listen to him at that moment.”
New York is expanding a pilot program that does just that -- dispatching unarmed professionals to listen to, and otherwise assist, those experiencing mental health crises. The goal is to avoid the violence that too often ensues when police officers respond to the scene. Since 2016, NYPD officers have shot and killed 19 people in the midst of a mental health crisis, 16 of whom were people of color, according to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the advocacy group Correct Crisis Intervention Today.
The new $50.4 million pilot program -- called B-HEARD, or Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division -- began in Harlem last summer and is expanding to Washington Heights and the South Bronx. It involves dispatching one social worker and two FDNY EMTs/paramedics, instead of cops, to mental health calls. B-HEARD does not respond to calls involving the threat of violence, so if it operated in the area where Pierre was killed, a B-HEARD team would likely not have responded.
Officials say early indications are the program has been a success, helping to avoid costly, onerous hospitalizations, while connecting those in need to long-term assistance. But Pierre’s family and advocates for people with mental illness say that mental health professionals aren’t being dispatched often enough to save lives.
The point of the B-HEARD program is for unarmed emergency responders to create a rapport with the person in distress in order to deescalate the situation. In contrast, officers who were talking to Pierre didn’t even ask his name until after he was shot and they were trying to resuscitate him, according to the camera footage.
At a recent exercise in Queens for new B-HEARD workers who are in a month-long training program, EMTs and a social worker acted out a scene that reflects the kind of scenario they will encounter in the field: A young man with a history of mental illness is yelling at his mother, who called 911 and is now crying. The social worker sits down in a chair, and calmly talks to the son until he settles down.
“Cops aren’t coming either, right? Because I haven’t done anything,” says the son, played by EMT Mario Crespo.
He is assured that no cops are coming to the home, and that he’s not going to the hospital, where he fears he’s going to be sedated. Eventually, the son allows the EMTs to take his vital signs. Ultimately, both mother and son agree to be referred to family therapy.
“The one good thing about you reaching out for help today is maybe there are things we can do to help support the both of you, right?” says the social worker, played by real B-HEARD social worker Francisco Rivera.
In his work for B-HEARD, Rivera said he responds to calls for panic attacks, verbal disputes, psychotic episodes, and intoxication. He wears street clothes, and arrives in a vehicle without flashing lights that reads “Mental Health Response Unit.” The EMT or paramedic assigned to his team does the medical assessments, and Rivera does the psychiatric assessments. The goals are to deescalate the situation and direct the patient to services, like city-funded mental health treatment.
“It ends up being a lot more about a patient wanting to be heard,” Rivera said, echoing the acronym for the program. “Sometimes, what to some person might be anger, is actually anxiety … You’d be surprised at the amount of times somebody will call 911 and they may literally just want to talk to somebody. And that’s the whole job -- just sitting there talking to them.”
City officials say B-HEARD is successful because it reduces the rate of unnecessary trips to the hospital, which is where police almost always take those in mental distress. Over its first several months, B-HEARD handled an average of 17 mental health calls a day, and less than half of those led to hospitalizations -- compared to 87% who were hospitalized via the traditional police response.
B-HEARD teams transported 19% of those they assisted to a community-based healthcare or social service operation, like the East Harlem Support and Connection Center. B-HEARD is operated in part by NYC Health + Hospitals, which officials there said eases the referral of services.
Janine Perazzo, a social worker and senior director at NYC Health + Hospitals, recalled an instance when a B-HEARD social worker sat on the floor with a teenager who was distraught. Once the situation was stabilized, the teeanger was connected with follow-up care.
“If the team wasn’t there to take the time, sit on the floor, have that engagement, it’s quite possible with a traditional response they would have been transported to the hospital,” she said. “It’s those moments when you really see the beauty of what this work is. And people getting the right response -- I think that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Still, some advocates for those with mental disabilities point to another statistic that makes them skeptical: From the start of the program in June through the end of March, in the precincts where B-HEARD is operational just 22.8% of mental health calls -- 1,525 in all -- were routed to B-HEARD instead of the police, according to the NYPD. That response rate has led to criticism.
“How dare anybody, let alone our tax-paying government agency, call something a non-police response with that kind of statistic?” said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. She represents New Yorkers with mental disabilities who in December filed a class-action suit against the city demanding non-police responses to all mental health crises. She said police involvement leads to prolonged detention, forced hospitalizations, and unnecessary involvement in the criminal justice system.
As they gather more experience on the ground and can better advise 911 operators on what they can handle, B-HEARD’s leaders said they hope to eventually route 50% of mental health calls away from the police in the precincts where they operate.
Part of the reason for the low response rate is unlike similar programs around the country, B-HEARD doesn’t handle calls if there’s a threat of violence, so police in New York will continue to have significant involvement in handling such emergencies. Sometimes, the NYPD calls B-HEARD for assistance, officials said. On just two occasions, B-HEARD called the NYPD due to safety concerns.
A spokesperson for the NYPD, Lt. Jessica McRorie, said in an email that the police support B-HEARD “because it engages the appropriate agencies to respond to people in mental health crisis when there is no public safety concern.” She said mental health calls in the precincts where B-HEARD operates are routed by NYPD’s 911 operators to FDNY dispatchers, who determine whether B-HEARD should be assigned to the call.
B-HEARD does not operate in Brooklyn, where Pierre was killed. And because Pierre’s case involved potential violence--police said Pierre had actually called 911 himself, and had left behind a suicide note--teams wouldn’t have been dispatched regardless. But Pierre’s family believes a non-police responder could have saved his life.
They said he was just ill and needed help from someone who wasn’t pointing a gun at him. After viewing the videos of the incident, they said it was clear that there was enough time to call a mental health professional for assistance before the situation escalated.
“To think now that he's not here to experience life all because there aren't protocols in place to help someone who's having a mental episode, it’s unfair,” said Pierre’s older brother, Rholan, who said Pierre had schizophrenia. In the moment, his brother needed “a calm voice to let him know that everything will be okay, someone to kind of shine a light through the dark clouds in his mind.” Instead, Rholan said his brother got flashing police lights, which likely confused him.
The family started a petition calling for a state “Eudes Pierre Law,” which would require 911 operators to ask if a person is having a mental health crisis. If they are, mental health specialists would be called to the scene, followed by EMTs and police.
“The only way we feel like we can try to go on and make some kind of right out of this is making sure that Eudes Piere will be the last person suffering during a mental health episode where they’re met with callousness instead of compassion and calm and care,” said Pierre’s cousin, Sheina Banatte.
One study by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center found that people in mental health crisis are 16 times more likely to be killed in encounters with police than others.
Often, when the NYPD has used force against a mentally ill person, they have said it’s because the person posed a direct threat to them: Deborah Danner, 66, killed in her home while wielding a bat; Saheed Vassell, fatally shot after police believed a pipe he was waving was a gun; Miguel Richards, shot in his apartment while holding a knife.
Lowenkron said that police shouldn’t be the first-line responders in any of these situations, since the vast majority of people experiencing mental illness are not actually violent. She wants specific guidelines written into law on when police are not to be called, and a separate emergency number for mental health calls, since 911 is run by the cops.
Also, she said, it is inexcusable that B-HEARD currently operates 16 hours a day, when the majority of calls come in, and not overnight. “What do you say to your loved one?” Lowenkron asked. “‘Oh honey, could you have that mental health crisis a little bit later? There’s nobody here to help you right now, just hold off on that.’”