Jamaica mom’s arrest highlights problems with city response to mental health crises: advocates

Advocates from Vocal-NY and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (left) joined Peggy Herrera (second from left) at Queens Criminal Court Oct. 11 for a rally calling on the city to reform approaches to 911 calls for people experiencing emotional disturbances. Photo courtesy of Vocal-NY.

Advocates from Vocal-NY and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz (left) joined Peggy Herrera (second from left) at Queens Criminal Court Oct. 11 for a rally calling on the city to reform approaches to 911 calls for people experiencing emotional disturbances. Photo courtesy of Vocal-NY.

By David Brand

Peggy Herrera was arrested on Aug. 25 after she called 911 to request help for her son, Justin, who was experiencing a mental health crisis. Herrera said she stood in front of the door when cops arrived. The NYPD said she tried to stop them from entering the Jamaica home once Justin had calmed down. They cuffed her. 

Advocates and at least one local lawmaker say Herrera’s arrest highlights severe problems in the way the NYPD handles calls for people experiencing mental and emotional disturbances. Cops, they argue, are not the appropriate people to address a mental health crisis

Herrera joined members of the organization VOCAL-NY and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz Oct. 11 on the steps of the Queens Criminal Courthouse, where Herrera is charged with obstructing governmental administration.

“On that day, my son needed a social worker, not uniformed officers with guns,” she said. “On that day we needed to remove stigma and utilize compassion.”

Herrera called on the Queens District Attorney to drop the charges against her. The DA’s office said it does not comment on pending cases.

She and other advocates at the rally also called on the City Council to reform EDP response policy so that police officers are not the first and often only people who arrive on the scene.  

Advocates had previously rallied outside the 103rd Precinct, whose NYPD officers responded to the EDP call and arrested Herrera in August.  Eagle  file photo by Jonathan Sperling

Advocates had previously rallied outside the 103rd Precinct, whose NYPD officers responded to the EDP call and arrested Herrera in August. Eagle file photo by Jonathan Sperling

Herrera said she did not to to block the officers from the 103rd Precinct from entering the home and instead tried to talk with them. The cops, however, say they told her they had to enter the home once they responded to a 911 call for an emotionally disturbed person, or EDP. Their behavior — a consequence of New York City and NYPD policy — put her and her son at risk, she said.

“It’s absurd that someone be criminalized for seeking help for a loved one,” she said. 

The NYPD did not respond to request for more information about EDP policy, and instead sent a summary of their response and Herrera’s attest.

After the Emergency Services Unit arrived, Herrera “stepped in front of the door and began to scream and refused to move and allow officers to perform their lawful duties to provide proper aid to the male inside,” the NYPD said. “She continued to ignore officer’s orders, and was taken into custody.”

There were 31,701 EDP calls made across Queens last year, compared to 23,185 in 2014, according to data obtained by THE CITY in March. The NYPD recorded 179,569 total EDP calls citywide in 2018. 

Numerous New Yorkers have died in the course of police officers responding to EDP calls, including high-profile incidents. Police shot and killed a Brooklyn man after his mother called 911 seeking help because he was acting erratically in 2016.  Another man died inside his Bronx home after police tasered him in 2015. 

In September, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams called on the city to create a new emergency number that people can call to get help for people experiencing mental health crises.

Cruz echoed the call for supportive services for people in mental health crises.

“Peggy needed help. Her son needed help. Instead, the response they received left her with a possible criminal record and her son without the help he desperately requires, Cruz said. 

“I urge my colleagues at the city level to support the creation of an agency equipped to respond in instances like these, with trained mental health professionals, able to provide people with the help they need,” she added. “Not police officers. Not police force. Not the criminal justice system.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Herrera disputes the NYPD’s sequence of events. She said she stood in front of the door to the apartment and officers physically moved her shortly after arriving.