By Tandy Lau
nvoluntary hospitalizations headlined Mayor Eric Adams’ new mental health playbook, announced last Tuesday, Nov. 29. The administration’s directive to the NYPD, FDNY emergency service workers and Health Department crisis teams green-lights removing those with an “inability to meet basic needs” for a city-run hospital evaluation without their consent, even if they don’t meet the practice’s traditional standards.
“The common misunderstanding persists that we cannot provide involuntary assistance unless the person is violent, suicidal or presenting a risk of imminent harm,” said Adams. “This myth must be put to rest. Going forward, we will make every effort to assist those who are suffering from mental illness and whose illness is endangering them by preventing them from meeting their basic human needs.
“And let me be clear, we will continue to do all we can to persuade those in need of help to accept services voluntarily, but we will not abandon them if those efforts cannot overcome the person’s unawareness of their own illness.”
For Adams, this directive only clarifies the allegedly specious understanding of when involuntary hospitalizations are appropriate. But for advocates, the announcement spells fears of wrongful detainment for those living with severe mental illness and an attack on the city’s homeless population.
“The mayor is playing fast and loose with the legal rights of New Yorkers and is not dedicating the resources necessary to address the mental health crises that affect our communities,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement. “The federal and state constitutions impose strict limits on the government’s ability to detain people experiencing mental illness—limits that the mayor’s proposed expansion is likely to violate.”
“New Yorkers will see this plan for what it is: a draconian attempt to say the Adams administration is tackling a problem, while only making it worse,” added VOCAL-NY Director of Organizing Jawanza Williams. “The lives of people dealing with mental health crises won’t be improved by forcing them into treatment, especially if it’s coming from law enforcement. All this directive will do is disappear them.”
Both the NYCLU and VOCAL-NY are steadfast proponents of “Daniel’s Law” (S.4814/A.4697), a proposed bill removing armed police officers from handling mental health crises and replacing them with mental health professionals unless another person’s safety is at risk. It’s named after Daniel Prude, a Black Chicagoan who was killed by Rochester, N.Y. police in 2020 during an episode. Back in 2018, NYPD officers fatally shot Jamaican-born Saheed Vassell, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
A 2019 Office of the New York City Public Advocate report delineated the elevated risk Black men with mental illness face during police encounters. Untreated illness increases the risk of being killed during a police encounter by 16-fold, compounded with the general increased dangers for Black men when dealing with cops. The report also mentions that Black Americans are significantly more prone to mental health problems.
While the NYPD cannot directly involuntarily transport and hospitalize New Yorkers with severe mental illness, police are called upon to request the removals, so the judgment calls often fall squarely on the shoulders of officers. Adams promised training and mental health clinician hotlines for police to assist them with this decision-making.
Adams also reinforced the application of court-mandated Assisted Outpatient Treatment, dubbed “Kendra’s Law” after the subway-pushing death of writer Kendra Webdale by an individual with severe mental illness. In New York City, 44% of recipients are Black—by far the highest. A quarter of all recipients have experienced homelessness.
Adams continued to champion the clubhouse model of voluntary, community-recovery spaces for those diagnosed with severe mental illness to hang out, meet peers and find employment. But one of those programs, Fountain House, communicated anxieties over the mayor’s new directive. Their clubhouse, which Adams visited earlier this year and is the previous employer of Health Department Commissioner Ashwin Vasan, revealed one member feared harm from law enforcement and another “wanted to cry” after hearing the mayor’s speech.
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.