New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at...

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers remarks at Bryant Park's Winter Village Market last week. Credit: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images/Pacific Press

Health workers, not NYPD officers, will respond to emergency calls reporting a person in mental distress in two "high-need communities," New York City's first lady Chirlane McCray announced Tuesday.

Beginning in February, "Mental Health Teams" consisting of social workers and medics will be part of this pilot program that could be expanded across the city, McCray, wife of Mayor Bill de Blasio, said. She leads the mayor's mental health initiatives in the city.

The policy change comes at a time when the NYPD has fewer officers who are also facing additional responsibilities in other areas around a city dealing with rising violence and bracing for a possible second wave of coronavirus.

Until now, officers have generally responded to close to 180,000 911 calls a year of people suffering mental issues or considered emotionally distressed. For the most part, the vast majority of cases are resolved without incident, but in a small number of cases, the incidents can lead to violence and the use of deadly force by officers.

The pilot program will experiment in two neighborhoods — which have yet to be determined. This strategy of burden shifting from officers to mental health professionals and social workers is something other cities, notably Denver, San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon, have announced plans to do, or have already implemented.

Officers in New York will still need to be involved in the pilot program in cases where a person has a weapon or is exhibiting violent behavior.

Patrick Lynch, head of the Police Benevolent Association labor union, issued a statement in which he criticized the program for what he said was putting the mental health professionals in harm's way.

"Police officers know that we cannot single-handedly solve our city’s mental health disaster, but this plan will not do that either," said Lynch. "It will undoubtedly put our already overtaxed EMS colleagues in dangerous situations without police support."

Lynch said a complete overhaul of the city mental health care system was needed to "help people before they are in crisis, rather than picking up the pieces afterward."

Pointing to cases in which cops have fatally shot mentally ill people, advocates for those with mental illness have long called for less police involvement in distress calls on the grounds that police escalate tense situations and are ill-trained the handle this population.

But NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said in a statement that the department looked forward to participating in the pilot program.

"Our officers applaud the intervention by health professionals in these nonviolent cases and as always stand ready to assist," Shea said.

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