Why New Orleans Needs a Non-Police Emergency Response Team Now

Photo Courtesy of OPPRC

It was chilly Saturday morning at 2:00 a.m. when my neighbor looked outside and saw a white-haired man with only one leg trying to use his walker as a wheelchair. The man appeared agitated and was being harassed by teenagers. Thinking he could probably take care of himself, my neighbor went back to sleep. About three hours later I saw the same man now astride his walker in the curb lane of my block. His head was down and his eyes closed. Surely, I thought, the man passed out drunk and would rise with the sun and be on his way.

The sun’s warm rays soon shown on the man who I could then see was dressed only in soiled shorts and a light windbreaker. The sidewalk soon filled with the hum of people passing by and yet the man never raised his head. Finally he engaged in conversation with a young couple. Eureka, they must be family or friends to come to get him! But no, the man again lowered his head and closed his eyes. 

About 1 p.m. I called 311 to report a man in need of help. Not jail, I said, just help. Was he being violent, were there any visible weapons, did he need an ambulance, the operator asked. The man has been sitting there since 2 a.m. with no food or water or a way to relieve himself, I patiently explained. The 311 operator tried twice to connect me to the district police station, but there was no answer at the desk. Finally she agreed to call 911.

Two hours later an NOPD patrol car arrived. The officer approached the man who was mumbling about angels and said he “could not move.” The officer called EMS and agreed to wait with his blue lights flashing until an ambulance arrived. As most informed readers know, the city’s EMS department is woefully understaffed and unable to answer all the calls for service. After another hour passed I reached Councilmember Jay Banks on his cell phone and asked for help. Banks was quickly able to get EMS to upgrade the request and an ambulance suddenly appeared.  

As the man began to protest, the two paramedics gently moved him onto the stretcher and into the ambulance. One paramedic thoroughly cleaned the seat of his walker and brought it along. It was 5:25 p.m. when the ambulance headed to Tulane Hospital – more than 15 hours since the disoriented, one-legged man without even a wheelchair for mobility first appeared in my neighborhood.  

Three things stand out from this incident. First, a caring, conscientious NOPD officer spent more than two hours not engaged in fighting crime but addressing an emergency that probably could have been handled by a social worker or other trained professional. Second, dozens of people passed this mentally ill one-legged man on the street and didn’t care enough to get involved. Third, an ambulance only arrived in a timely fashion (relatively speaking) because a member of the City Council made the request. 

OPPRC spent a solid year building a broad constituency for Help Not Handcuffs, a non-police emergency response team that could work with individuals with mental health issues. The Council eagerly approved the measure. With the availability of federal dollars, the Council is currently reallocating funds to better support community needs. Why not prioritize this worthy program now?

Councilmember Jay Banks said that he didn’t know if funding could become available to start Help Not Handcuffs immediately even if all the necessary protocols were in place. Banks did acknowledge that police intervention in mental health cases is not absolutely necessary. He also agreed that there is a hesitancy on the public’s part to assist those in distress because of the stigma attached to mental illness. “We can no longer ignore cries for help,” said Banks. “That man could have expired right there.”

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