From the court of public opinion to the actual courts, Mayor Eric Adams’ recent directive to emergency responders to involuntarily hospitalize individuals with severe mental illness is facing stiff opposition. Recently, lawyers and plaintiffs from an existing class action are hoping legal avenues from their related case against the city can stifle the plan short-term.
The lawsuit was filed in December 2021 against New York City, challenging the NYPD’s involvement in responding to those with mental health disorders, and those involved requested last week for a temporary restraining order to halt the Adams’ administration’s new directive. The judge converted the request to a preliminary injunction, which would similarly prevent a legal party—in this case, the city of New York—from taking a certain action. And in this case, the certain action is Adams’ directive to involuntarily hospitalize those with mental illness, even if they don’t pose an immediate physical threat. Such a request is handled on an expedited basis.
The coalition of lawyers and plaintiffs filing the suit included firms such as New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), Beldock Levine & Hoffman LLP and Marashi Legal and organizations such as Community Access and National Alliance on Mental Illness-NYC (NAMI-NYC).
“In the context of this pending litigation, we were really shocked when the mayor announced this new policy,” NYLPI attorney Marinda van Dalen said to the Amsterdam News. “Under the new policy, it becomes even more dangerous for people who have mental disabilities to feel safe in New York City. It’s the new standard allowing the police officer to assess on the street whether somebody appears mentally ill, and whether a police officer thinks they have an inability to meet their basic needs. And we believe that this new watered down standard tramples on the rights of people with mental disabilities.”
NAMI-NYC CEO Matt Kudish added that many members of the coalition suing New York City initially welcomed nationwide Critical Intervention Team programs, which train law enforcement to serve as first responders to mental health calls. But after the police-led deaths of New Yorkers experiencing mental health crises—most of whom were people of color—organizations began to rethink their stance on officer involvement and oppose measures such as Adams’ new directive.
“I’m grateful that we have a mayor right now who’s focusing on serious mental illness,” said Kudish. “There’s a lot we could do to improve the lives of the people the Mayor says he’s so concerned about. Involuntary hospitalization is not the way to accomplish that goal.”
Adams originally announced his directive on Nov. 29. The mayor maintains his initiative doesn’t rewrite the state’s approach to dealing with New Yorkers experiencing mental health crises via involuntary hospitalization but rather interprets it to include those who don’t pose immediate risks to others if their disorder is causing them to be unsheltered or if they pose risks to themselves.
On Monday, the courts punted the decision, reported The City. According to van Dalen, the end goal for the litigation remains to replace police with non-police teams to respond to those in need of health care, along with involuntary arrest, detention and transport of those actual or perceived with mental disorders.
In October 2021, the NYLPI surveyed 154 New Yorkers with past mental health crises and found patterns of inadequate care, unsafe feelings and general bad experiences dissuading respondents from seeking subsequent care or help during city responses. Through the Washington Post’s fatal police encounter database, the report also found at least 18 people were killed during mental health crises by New York City cops since 2015, with at least 15 being Black or other New Yorkers of color.
Outside the courtroom, rallies against Adams’ new directive took place, including one outside City Hall last Thursday, Dec. 8 organized by Communities United for Police Reform (CPR).
“We are here today to demand that Mayor Adams roll back this dangerous plan that disguises forced treatment as compassionate care,” said CPR spokesperson Anthonine Pierre. “Expanding the power of the NYPD to institutionalize people in crisis will harm, violate and traumatize the New Yorkers the mayor claims to help.
“NYPD officers are not equipped to decide if someone should be forced into mental health treatment, and they should not be the primary agency to address the mental health and housing needs of New Yorkers.”
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams withheld immediate judgment for the directive, but he penned a letter to Adams shortly after the announcement asking for specifics and clarification, including with protections for those removed and the authority of private, non-city hospital EMS workers.
“The mayor’s announcement leaves many details unspecified, questions unanswered, and must provide more information on the intentions, implementation and non-police investment in its plan,” said Williams on Nov. 29. “A framework that continues to center overreliance on police, diminishes the role of health professionals, and de-prioritizes the role of peer support will not be sustainable or effective in meeting the needs of New Yorkers in need or a city in crisis.”
And Adams is facing pushback from New York City police, who are still awaiting new training roughly two weeks following the directive. While the Police Benevolent Association (PBA) supported the mayor’s general plan earlier this month, the union met the announcement with skepticism and renewed concerns over the NYPD’s existing staffing issues..
“We need extremely clear guidance and training on when and how we should compel people to accept help,” said PBA President Pat Lynch in a statement. “We need our leaders to back us up when we carry out these duties. And above all, we need our leaders to recognize that each new responsibility is a strain on our severely understaffed, overworked and underpaid ranks. If our city does not take immediate action to reverse the NYPD staffing emergency, we won’t be able to adequately help any of the New Yorkers who need it.”
This past Tuesday, Dec. 13, the mayor addressed those concerns during a presser, adding that the initiative would not be “police-driven” but led by mental health experts.
“Two weeks is not a long time,” said Adams. “We’re going to make sure our officers are trained. We’re going to make sure they execute this plan appropriately so that they can make the best decision for people who can’t take care of their basic needs, and they are a danger to themselves and others. And so as we continue to evolve, we are going to produce a good quality product.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://bit.ly/amnews1