Mayor de Blasio introduced a joint initiative between the Department of Health, the NYPD, and homeless services agencies yesterday called NYC Safe, which will set out to identify, treat, and regularly follow up with New Yorkers who meet two strict requirements: a history of mental illness, and a history of violent behavior.
"Some of the media have tried to portray this as being about the homeless first and foremost," the mayor said. "No. It is about people with mental health challenges who are prone to violence. They are a concern to all of us, whether they live in an apartment building, a private home, or on the street."
The plan, which will cost the city $22 million annually, is anchored by a central NYC Safe Hub—a new office where the Mayor's Criminal Justice team will maintain files on New Yorkers who fit the mentally-ill-and-violent criteria, allowing the Department of Health, NYPD, and homeless services to weigh in on individual patients in one place.
"If someone has one or more assault convictions, and is known to our mental health professionals as someone who needs care, and is not getting it, that's going to register in this Hub, a kind of 'air traffic control,'" de Blasio said. "Literally there are going to be people watching to see who's meeting these criteria and not getting the help they need." Help might come in the form of regular treatment programs and check-ins with a new DOH "monitoring" team, or even institutionalization, the mayor said.
"We have two systems—the criminal justice system and the mental health system—that until now haven't had regular, real-time ways to communicate with one another," said Criminal Justice Office Director Elizabeth Glazer. "The criminal justice system doesn't know what to do with the mentally ill." In May, the police shot a mentally ill man who was wielding a hammer in Midtown, ending several days of unprovoked hammer attacks against female pedestrians.
Under the new plan, anyone acting out violently is still in the NYPD's jurisdiction, and will prompt a traditional police response. But now, according to city officials, the NYPD will have immediate backup from the clinicians who specialize in mental health issues.
Calls to the Hub might also "come through an officer encountering someone on the street. It might come through a call from one of our DHS shelters or from a public hospital," the mayor said. "The point is, the information previously would not have been gathered together in one place."
Five new "co-response" teams, made up of NYPD officers and DOH clinicians, will be on call at two city bases. These teams will have the authority to go out and assess a mentally ill person, even if he or she isn't in a "crisis" situation at that moment, according to Deputy Police Commissioner Susan Herman. If it's deemed necessary, these teams can bring people to the hospital for treatment. Herman described the approach as "proactive."
Meanwhile, three new Intensive Mobile Treatment teams will, according to the Mayor's Office, "be dispatched any time there is a New Yorker who needs intensive care." These teams will also have special training to treat "co-occurring substance use and mental illness" which "increases the concern for violent behavior." (One reporter: "What are you going to do about the homeless people who use weaponized marijuana?")
Shelters will also get additional clinical staff, plus more DHS Peace Officers and NYPD officers to patrol in-and-around "highest-need" shelters.
When pressed on how many New Yorkers are both mentally ill and violent, First Lady Chirlane McCray said the administration is currently aware of "several hundred," prompting reporters to ask persistently what percentage of this group is homeless.
A DHS spokesman confirmed that as of this February, there were 3,000 street-homeless New Yorkers. According the NYTimes, as of Monday, there 56,284 people in the city's shelter system. "You can clearly see in just that breakdown, that it is a small percentage among the homeless" who are mentally ill and violent, de Blasio said.
One reporter asked how officers responding to a call about a mentally ill individual will determine that that person is indeed mentally ill, and needs to be restrained. What if the person happens to be calm when authorities arrive? A DOH spokesman said, "This is where judgement can play. We will use the context of recent events to inform that decision."
NYC Safe is part of a larger plan to address "gaps" in the mental health system city-wide, which will be introduced this fall. That plan will, according to the First Lady, address the need for permanent housing for the mentally ill—many of whom are currently referred to unregulated, overcrowded, city-funded three-quarter houses.
According to Coalition for the Homeless President Mary Brosnahan, permanent housing for the mentally ill is essential to helping the very people NYC Safe is targeting. “A major commitment of housing with on-site support services for New Yorkers with mental illness must come in short order, if we hope to see any lasting difference in the visible suffering we all encounter each day," she said in a statement to the NYTimes.
Last summer, de Blasio instated a task force to focus on the NYPD and Department of Correction's treatment of the mentally ill.