A bill reintroduced in the New York state legislature on January 20 would fundamentally change how the state handles mental health emergencies. In place of police officers being first responders, it would create special civilian teams throughout the state, trained in nonviolent response. Named “Daniel’s Law,” it’s inspired by Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who was killed by police in Rochester when experiencing a mental health crisis in March 2020.
Senate Bill 2398, as it’s also known, is sponsored by Senator Samra G. Brouk and Assembly Member Harry Bronson, both Democrats who represent Rochester.
On January 25, the harm reduction organization VOCAL-NY is holding an advocacy day in Albany, urging the passage of Daniel’s Law “to end the criminalization of mental illness and substance use disorder, especially in Black and brown communities.”
Daniel’s Law would create a statewide council and numerous smaller regional or local councils, responsible for setting up “emergency and crisis response services” for incidents related to mental health, substance use disorder or disabilities. Rather than law enforcement officials, these councils would be made of people with direct experience or professional background in mental health care, medicine, substance use treatment, disability justice or emergency services.
“When we found out about the killing of Daniel Prude, [we] organized the community responses … but we also recognized that doing it in Rochester wasn’t enough.”
The state council would work with the state commissioners of mental health and addiction services to approve emergency and crisis service plans submitted by the regional or local councils. Its members would be appointed by the governor and state legislature, to include people with peer or professional experience. They would be tasked with ensuring that anyone in New York who experiences a crisis can receive appropriate care or treatment—with their consent and without being subjected to physical force, arrest or jail time.
An existing local program in Rochester informs this statewide plan.
“When we found out about the killing of Daniel Prude, [we] organized the community responses,” Stanley Martin, co-founder and organizer with Free the People Roc, told Filter. “We worked to create the crisis response team locally, but we also recognized that doing it in Rochester wasn’t enough, we wanted to make sure that people across New York state … and many others who have been killed by police while experiencing a mental health crisis, have a different opportunity to get the help they need.”
Daniel Prude was killed after his brother called the police in the early morning of March 23, 2020. Daniel had fled his house during an apparent mental health crisis. He had no permanent home, and had already been taken to the hospital by police the day prior, after his sister-in-law called for help, but was discharged.
During the subsequent encounter, several police officers restrained Daniel, who was naked in the freezing cold, on the ground and put a “spit hood” over his head. He stopped breathing after they held him down for two minutes. He died in the hospital a week later, after being taken off life support. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by asphyxia, but the officers involved have not faced charges.
The local or regional councils created by Daniel’s Law would develop crisis response plans, covering an emergency team and its professional standards, which would need to be approved by the state council. These local councils would receive state funding to cover all their costs, and no money could go to police agencies.
“We know it definitely will be cost-saving, not only financially but also in the lives saved from not having to interact with a police officer.”
“We know the amount will vary based on the region and that will only be determined after crisis plans are submitted,” Martin said. She and other advocates studied data from the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, a non police crisis response team started in 1989. “Their fiscal analysis has helped us understand what it might cost. We know it’s a very small fraction of what it costs for a police officer to show up. We know it definitely will be cost-saving, not only financially but also in the lives saved from not having to interact with a police officer who is not equipped to respond.”
Crisis responders’ specific training would include understanding how trauma works and sensitivity to different cultures. A dedicated phone line, 9-8-8, would notify these teams of a relevant emergency, and calls to 911 or 311 could also be routed to them if the caller requested it. The teams would be able to request assistance from a police officer if a person were believed to be at risk of causing “imminent serious physical harm” to others.
Martin said that research on these types of programs has show that it’s rare for crisis responders to find themselves in dangerous situations. For example, research on the CAHOOTS program indicates that of 24,000 calls the crisis response team answered in 2019, police backup was requested in just 311 cases.
Under Daniel’s Law, a police officer who encountered someone going through a mental health crisis could only intervene and take them into custody if that person were at risk of harming themself or others, and if a crisis responder were unable to respond. In such cases, the police would have to notify the local crisis response team, the local health officer and their police agency.
Right now, it looks like an uphill climb for bill could to get out of committee and receive a full Senate vote. Martin said the statewide coalition behind Daniel’s Law is working to get powerful Democratic lawmakers, like Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and the Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, on board. But the legislation has been able to count on the support of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.
“It seems like a no-brainer,” Martin said. “It’s just something that increases public safety and makes sure that the people who are best equipped to deal with a public health issue show up.”