Skip to content

‘Police are not the answer’: Civil liberty advocates on NYC’s plan to involuntarily take mentally ill people to hospitals

Mayor Eric Adams is moving forward with a suite of initiatives geared toward ending the mental health crisis on New York City streets.

In part, they allow police officers to involuntarily remove people experiencing a mental health crisis from streets and subways — even if they do not pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

The decision is polarizing civil liberties experts. Some see the announcement as a welcome step away from incarcerating people, while others remain concerned.

Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel is the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Tina Luongo is the chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society. Both joined “WNYC Morning Edition” host Michael Hill to discuss the implications of the policy. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Hill: Norman, you worked with Mayor Adams for years, including on homelessness-related issues. But in this instance you say the city may be overreaching. How so in this case?

Siegel: Well, I believe that the legislative agenda that the mayor proposed yesterday attempts to facilitate an increase in the denial of New Yorkers’ rights to individual liberty based on vague and overly broad terms.

The U.S. Supreme Court has clearly said that civil commitment is a massive curtailment of liberty, and therefore currently under the law you can bring somebody in for evaluation based on the fact that they’re unable to meet basic survival needs. But currently you can’t keep someone against their will in a hospital based on their basic survival needs. But second, basic survival needs — access to food, clothing, shelter — in my experience, people out on the streets, they’ve been in the shelters, they’ve rejected the shelters for valid reasons.

So I’m concerned. For example, I am part of a group every that Thursday night goes to four different locations in the city to try to voluntarily get people to leave the streets. We’ve had a pretty successful rate. That’s the way to do this. You go back each week to the same location. You develop a personal one-on-one relationship with people on the streets, and then you propose options for them.

When you finally get to the conclusion in your own mind, based on your training that someone has mental health problems, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily a danger to themselves or others. And then when you say to them, would you like to go to a mental health facility or replacement? And someone then says, ‘OK, where, where do I go?’ We don’t have very many options for them. And the reason for that is that the state and the city have not put enough funding in to create community-based mental health programs where people can voluntarily go. So if you focused on that, rather than taking it and mandating it against people’s will.

And finally the last group of people who should be doing this is the police department. Cops are not trained. They bring their own biases, as we all know. They have their own stereotypes in their heads, and you can’t with one afternoon training take that out of their heads. I think this is gonna create more problems. The real question is this all about out of sight, out of mind or do we really want to do something to help people?

Tina, you say the current system is broken, but this is a step in the right direction. Why do you say?

Luongo: So let me, I wanna be sort of clear as to what we think the step in the right direction is: it was the mayor acknowledging the dysfunction of a system that has long been created by ignoring the crisis that has been developing in the mental health system — the lack of funding, the lack of community-based programming.

Involuntary confinement, whether it’s in a hospital or a jail or prison, is not the answer that we need. It is a shift in resources to the community and into a health care system that’s proactively addressing needs. It is also looking at people who are right now ensnared in the criminal legal system, are being held at Rikers, and looking for a pathway for treatment and not jail or prison. And that’s what the New York City Defenders yesterday issued a statement about. It’s a call to look at legislative solutions like treatment, not jails.

A bill right now that’s pending in Albany and can be signed in the next session that provides for the court system to provide treatment as opposed to holding people and doing that without somebody taking a coercive plea, making sure that there are no gateways provided by district attorneys because of a certain charge, but to allow our mental health courts that have actually a success rate to be able to find pathways for people to return to community and more importantly then get the services to remain in community.

And that’s a conversation that no matter who the criminal legal stakeholder is, we’re agreed that what we need to do is have a proactive approach. Police are not the answer and certainly confinement and not the answer. So that’s what yesterday we found to be an important message from the mayor: you can’t ignore people anymore and we have to deal with this. But we cannot deal with this by just sweeping people into a hospital system the same way we’ve swept people into Rikers and prisons for years.

I’m curious, do either of you think that this approach exposes the city to lawsuits from those who are involuntarily removed?

That’s an easy question. Absolutely, yes. The only question becomes when that will happen and who’s gonna bring the litigation? When you’re talking about civil commitment unless you make sure that the person meets the current legal criteria there’s gonna be someone who’s gonna object. I’m also concerned about when someone out on the street, a police officer makes the determination that someone because they smell, because they haven’t had a shower for weeks, because their clothes are disheveled, they’re mumbling to themselves. That in and of itself doesn’t mean that you’re a danger to yourself or others, or even under the watered-down standard that it means that you’re likely to result in serious harm to yourself or others. And the cop says, ‘OK, we’re gonna take you in.’ And the person says, ‘no, I don’t wanna go.’ And then the interaction between that police officer and the individual, unfortunately, when I say that I think of too many instances where it wound up where it was a tragedy of what happened.

So, if you’re talking about really helping the people out there, what Tina was saying, I agree with, let’s set up these community mental health programs. Let’s train people, bring in the civil rights, legal aid people, the public defenders, to be part of the training process. So that’s not what was said yesterday. What was said yesterday, we go back to [then-Mayor] Ed Koch years ago, the Billie Boggs case, et cetera. I heard my good friend Eric Adams yesterday talking about an agenda that’s gonna basically bring people off the streets because of the criticism by editorial boards, by people in the communities. You know, my experience had on the streets, 70% of the people out on the streets, they don’t wanna be on the streets either. So this is common ground. What we need is viable options for people to — we need housing, we need substance abuse programs and we clearly need mental health programs. The city and the state have not funded that. That’s the problem.

But Tina, don’t some of these things already exist in the city?

Some of them do, but they’re not fully funded. And more importantly, we cannot ignore the need for supportive housing. That’s what’s needed for people who Norman just talked about. Those are the people who are leaving from our jails or coming home from prison.

They need supportive housing. And New York City has failed for decades in creating sustainable, supportive housing. And that’s what the mental health experts on the ground called for at a recent criminal justice summit with the mayor. That’s the answer.