After the horrifying deaths of two mentally ill Rikers Island prisoners made headlines in recent months, Mayor de Blasio has appointed a task force to look at the NYPD's and Department of Correction's handling of mentally ill individuals. The goal of the task force is to reduce the number of mentally ill inmates in New York City’s jails and provide better support for mentally ill New Yorkers after their release from jail.

"For far too long, our city’s jails have acted as de facto mental health facilities," de Blasio said in a statement announcing the task force. "Everyone deserves access to quality medical and mental health care—and addressing these needs within the criminal justice system will improve public safety for all New Yorkers. I’ve charged the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System with developing innovative strategies to transform, reform and update this city’s criminal justice system."

As part of its investigation, the task force will take a close look at the NYPD's handling of "emotionally disturbed persons," or, "EDP" in first-responder lingo. The NYPD fields 100,000 EDP calls every year, according to the Times, and the task force is expected to suggest alternatives to arrest, increased training for officers to help them respond to mentally ill individuals, and possibly teaming officers with social workers.

"If someone picks up the phone and calls 911 because they see someone acting out on the street, then what does the police officer do?” task force leader Elizabeth Glazer asks the Times. “Is this criminal behavior? And a lot of things can be described as criminal behavior, but the best intervention is not necessarily an arrest. What’s the best way to make a diagnosis? Is it up to the officer to make that diagnosis?"

In one infamous incident in 2008, a bipolar man fell to his death after police zapped him with a Taser because he was swinging a fluorescent light tube atop a Bed-Stuy business awning. (The NYPD lieutenant who gave the order later committed suicide.) In 2012, police were criticized for fatally shooting an EDP brandishing a knife in Times Square.

About 40 percent of the NYC's jail population has some form of mental illness, the AP reports. Last month the AP reported on the shocking death of Rikers Island inmate Bradley Ballard, 39, who died under deplorable conditions while incarcerated there in 2012. Five months after Ballard's death, Vietnam veteran James Murdough, 56, "baked to death" in his cell at Rikers.

Both Ballard and Murdough suffered from mental illnesses. Dr. Bandy Lee, a Yale psychiatrist who co-authored a report on jail officials' use of solitary confinement, told the AP, "Correctional institutions are such a poor substitute for mental hospitals, which is what they're basically functioning as in our society. The problem is the correction setting is not fit to deliver the proper care, and in fact many of the settings exacerbate their symptoms."

De Blasio's Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System will present its action plan in September. The task force executive committee is comprised of the following officials:

  • Steven Banks, Commissioner, Human Resources Administration
  • Mary Bassett, Commissioner, Department of Health and Mental Health
  • Ana Bermudez, Commissioner, Department of Probation
  • William Bratton, Commissioner, New York City Police Department
  • Gladys Carrion, Commissioner, Administration for Children’s Services
  • Zachary Carter, Corporation Counsel
  • Daniel Nigro, Incoming Commissioner, New York City Fire Department
  • Dean Fuleihan, Director, Office of Management and Budget
  • Terrance Holliday, Commissioner, Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs
  • Joseph Ponte, Commissioner, Department of Correction
  • Dr. Ramanathan Raju, President and CEO of HHC
  • Gilbert Taylor, Commissioner, Department of Homeless Services
  • Gregory Allen, Director of Program Development, New York State Department of Health
  • Joel Copperman, CEO, CASES (representing New York City providers)
  • Margaret Egan, New York State Assistant Secretary for Public Safety
  • Seymour James, Attorney-in-Chief of the Criminal Defense Practice, Legal Aid Society (representing New York City public defenders)
  • Judge Barry Kamins, Chief of Policy and Planning, New York State Courts
  • Ann Marie T. Sullivan, MD, Acting Commissioner, Office of Mental Health, New York State Department of Health
  • Cyrus Vance, New York County District Attorney (representing New York City District Attorneys)