When Mayor Eric Adams announced a new policy directing police and EMTs to forcibly send more people to the hospital for psychiatric evaluations, he called it a “moral mandate.” For Ibrahim Ayu, the directive sounded more like a mandate to traumatize New Yorkers like him, who are struggling to get by while coping with mental illness.
“They call it involuntary mental health treatment,” he said. “But for me, it's my head on the floor, my hands are cuffed. I'm chained to a bed in the middle of a room full of 50 people looking at me. That's my reality. It’s not that I'm getting treatment.”
The mayor’s plan, announced last month, broadens the legal basis for forcibly removing someone from a public space for a mental health evaluation. The directive empowers first responders to assess whether a person is not meeting their own “basic needs.” Adams’ initiative follows a spate of high-profile killings this year allegedly committed by people with documented histories of mental illness.
Gothamist interviewed six people who had been hospitalized against their will in recent years. Most said the mayor’s announcement triggered traumatic memories — and that they were hospitalized following confrontations in public with first responders, medicated without consent and then discharged without guidance on further mental health treatment.
Ayu, 41, has been hospitalized against his will twice this year. After receiving news of two back-to-back deaths in his family, Ayu rushed to get psychiatric help from Kings County Hospital, where he says an altercation with police landed him in the psychiatric ward involuntarily for one week. His criminal record, unstable housing, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia make each day a challenge.
“When I tell [the psychiatric ward] that my problem is I don’t have housing, that my son and my mother just died, that I can’t find a job because I have a felony conviction so I’m broke … No one in there even talked to me about that,” Ayu explained. “The two times I went, nothing came out of it except I lost a week of getting to talk to my kids.”
The NYPD said it had no record of Ayu’s ordeal because he was not charged.
Shelly Nortz, deputy executive directly for policy at Coalition for the Homeless, says psychiatric beds are in short supply. And once patients are discharged, supportive housing options across the city are scarce.
“We have far fewer inpatient psychiatric beds than we did before the pandemic, and we were already running in short supply,” Nortz said. Patients often spend days or weeks in the emergency room waiting for placement in psychiatric units, according to Dr. Craig Spencer, the former director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
The mayor’s announcement was triggering for Kam Brock, a musician from Long Island, who cried when she heard the news. She said she feared the directive could result in more people like her being medicated without consent.
“You put this out there, it’s gonna be worse than stop-and-frisk,” said Brock, who also works as a banker.
Brock’s BMW was seized after police pulled her over for a traffic violation in 2014. When she mistakenly showed up at the wrong precinct the next day to pick up her car, officers didn’t believe her story. They handcuffed Brock and brought her to Harlem Hospital, saying she was emotionally disturbed, evidence at a subsequent civil trial revealed.
“A doctor came up behind me,” she remembered. “I saw a needle about to go into my arm, then I screamed at the top of my lungs, then I was unconscious.”
Brock woke up 24 hours later and was shocked to learn that no one had contacted her family.
“I woke up to them taking my underwear off … They've drugged me, they put a catheter inside of me without my consent … If they can get it wrong with me, they can get it wrong with so many people,” Brock said, crying.
Brock took her case against the city to trial in 2019 and lost. Harlem Hospital denied wrongdoing and was found not liable. The hospital did not respond to an inquiry.
Like others who spoke to Gothamist, Brock says racial bias drove police to think she was lying.
“You can paint anybody to be anything when you're a police officer,” she said. “A young Black girl can't own a BMW, a young Black girl can't be a banker.”
Experts say that police aren’t trained to safely implement Adams’ directive. Domin Kamin, who helped the state develop crisis intervention training for law enforcement outside of New York City, told Gothamist earlier this month that “the mere presence of the police can escalate a situation even before they have a chance to say or do anything."
“Quite frankly, not every police officer has, nor should have, the ability to work with individuals in distress in the first place,” he said.
Since 2018, the NYPD has received over 2,500 allegations of police abusing their power in sending someone to the hospital against their will.
Nortz, of the Coalition for the Homeless, warns that certain police interactions can aggravate long-term symptoms for those with mental illness.
“Adverse experiences with the police feature very prominently in the delusional thought systems and real-life experience of many people with serious mental illness who are homeless,” she said. “This [policy] will just make that worse.”
Ari Kadosh, who is 40 and uses they/them pronouns, was once involuntarily hospitalized by a police officer they said “did it correctly.” As a former member of the Orthodox Jewish community, Kadosh’s access to mental health services was “horrid,” they said. They weren’t diagnosed with schizophrenia until their mid-30s.
Kadosh remembers crouching under their therapist’s desk when the police officer stepped into the room. “This was one of the earliest times I remember hallucinating … I was terrified, but this dude had the most soothing voice,” Kadosh said of the officer.
The experience made Kadosh think the officer had received training on how to deal with someone in a mental health crisis. But even Kadosh fears the mayor’s directive could be “applied unevenly” to their non-white friends.
“Cops are not social workers. They should not be making the snap judgment to put someone in Bellevue or Kings County,” Kadosh said. “We like the punitive [approach] that appears to give quick results. Not the restorative one that takes a while to work.”
William Igbokwe, a lawyer and the former Brooklyn prosecutor, anticipated a surge in lawsuits for wrongful involuntary hospitalization due to the policy.
“There would be a lot of violations of individuals’ rights if this [policy] is acted on by a police officer in the way that I think it gives them the right to do,” said Igbokwe, who handles a handful of such cases each year, almost all brought by people of color.
Adams’ new strategy to address the city’s homelessness and mental health crisis has already been met with a legal challenge.
City Hall did not respond to an inquiry.
“It is not acceptable for us to see someone who clearly needs help and walk past. For too long there's been a gray area where policy, law and accountability have not been clear, and this has allowed people in need to slip through the cracks. This culture of uncertainty has led to untold suffering and deep frustration. It cannot continue,” Adams has said.