New York Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday directed first responders to enforce a state law that allows them to potentially involuntarily enlist people with a mental health crisis as part of a bid to address concerns about homelessness and crime.
Adams said it’s a myth that first responders could only involuntarily commit those who showed an “obvious act” that they could be suicidal, violent or a danger to others. Instead, he said the law allows first responders to involuntarily enlist those who cannot meet their own “basic human needs” — a lower bar.
New York City Police Department officers and first responders will receive additional training to help them conduct such assessments, and a team of mental health technicians will be available either through a hotline or video chat to help them determine whether a person needs to be taken to a hospital for further evaluation.
The city also plans to develop specialized intervention teams that work alongside NYPD officers.
Adams said first responders have not been consistent they enforced the law, unsure of its scope, reserving it only for the most serious cases.
“Many officials feel uncomfortable using that authority when they have doubts about whether the person in crisis meets the criteria,” Adams said Tuesday. “The hotline allows an officer to describe what they are seeing to a clinical professional or even use video calls to get an expert opinion on the options available.”
New York State passed legislation in 2021 allowing first responders to involuntarily treat a person with mental illness who needs immediate care.
The policy is the latest strategy aimed at getting a grip on a mental health crisis that Adams has identified as one of the underlying causes of violence and crime in the city.
In January, Michelle Go was pushed in front of an oncoming subway train in Times Square and killed by a man who city and NYPD officials said was emotionally disturbed.
In September, police arrested a mother who drowned her three children in the waters off the famous Coney Island Boardwalk and later told investigators she dreamed of them in the water, police officials told CNN.
Mental health was one of the issues discussed in October when Adams called a two-day summit with city and state stakeholders to get crime under control.
The policy drew a mixed response from officials, who acknowledged the challenges of providing appropriate and humane treatment for people with mental illness.
“This is a long-standing and very complex issue,” NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said in a statement. “And we will continue to work closely with our many partners to ensure everyone has access to the services they need. This deserves the full support and attention of our joint efforts.”
FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh said in a statement the department is “proud to be working with Mayor Adams to address this critical public safety issue.” Our mission is simple: to be there for all New Yorkers when they need help and to provide mental health care.”
City officials made it clear that the policy allows for due process and that there are legal ways to challenge this designation when an individual is evaluated and found unable to care for themselves. Civil rights activists say that’s not enough.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the move in a statement an “attempt to drive homelessness out and people out of sight.”
“The mayor is playing fast and loose with the legal rights of New Yorkers and is not providing the resources necessary to address the mental health crises affecting our communities,” Lieberman said. “Federal and state statutes place strict limits on the government’s ability to detain people with mental illness — limits that the mayor’s proposed expansion is likely to violate. Forcing people into treatment is a failed strategy to connect people to long-term treatment and care.”
New York City public attorney Jumaane Williams told CNN on Wednesday he supports some of the mayor’s policies but is concerned there is a lack of detail on how to address long-term medical problems.
“New York City residents want to be safe and able to use the subway,” he said. “But if you ask them, they don’t want the police to arrest people because they have a mental health crisis. They want people to have support and continuity of care. The problem with this plan is that it doesn’t spell out what the continuum of care is.”
Former NYPD detective Andy Bershad also had mixed criticism, saying he was concerned about the training and potential impact on NYPD officers.
“Are we looking at situations where things might be going badly?” he said. “If I go to take a patient who doesn’t want to go or against their will, now I’m taking them involuntarily, what are the consequences for the uniformed officer, the emergency services?”