Plan Tests Tense Relationship Between N.Y.P.D. and Mentally Ill People

Each day, New York City’s 911 system is inundated with calls reporting problems with a “possible E.D.P.” — an emotionally disturbed person. The three letters are promptly relayed over police radios hundred of times a day, more than 100,00 times a year.

Dealing with mentally ill people has long been a vexing and volatile aspect of patrolling the city. Unpredictable encounters can quickly escalate from noisy hassles into explosive situations in which officers may be injured and civilians may be restrained or even shot.

Now these confrontations seem poised to proliferate.

Mayor Eric Adams announced on Tuesday that the city would give police officers more latitude to remove New Yorkers living on the streets or in the subways for immediate screening and treatment.

Mr. Adams has called the city’s mental health crisis the root of its crime problem in the subway. But his announcement has raised questions about whether police officers, who are not trained health professionals, should decide whether someone is mentally ill enough to force them into handcuffs and take them to a hospital.

“What’s the criteria to determine whether someone else needs help? If they don’t have a coat on in the winter? There’s a hundred different permutations to the question,” said Keith Ross, a retired police officer who spent more than a decade on patrol in Queens housing projects.

“I don’t think there was much thought put into the implementation, how this was going to work,” said Mr. Ross, now an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

Mr. Adams’s initiative seems aimed at resolving the type of behavior on display on Tuesday night, when a man who seemed agitated approached two police officers in the Times Square subway station.

“Is this your first time doing this?” he said to one officer, the first of a string of loud, unintelligible questions. The officers refrained from engaging with the man but monitored him for several minutes. They finally moved away as he continued on toward the Port Authority Bus Terminal, still muttering and without help.

Mr. Ross said that a key patrol skill for dealing with a mentally unstable person was “talking someone into handcuffs,” which might involve saying something like: “You’re hearing voices and I don’t hear them, but I want to help you. You need to go to the hospital and we are making that decision for you.”

The Police Department received 139,199 emergency calls involving people in apparent emotional crisis through September, compared to 128,488 for that period last year, according to its records. But the agency over the years has been criticized for aggression toward unstable New Yorkers, sometimes in encounters that have turned fatal.

In 1984, outrage and protest followed the police killing of Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill woman shot during a confrontation in her Bronx apartment building. And in 2016, Deborah Danner, 66, an emotionally disturbed woman was fatally shot by a police sergeant in her Bronx apartment. City officials said the officer failed to follow protocol for dealing with an emotionally disturbed person.

New officers receive training in the Police Academy on dealing with emotionally disturbed people. City officials said it would take months for more intense preparation on handling people who resist being taken to hospitals — an optimistic time frame for a department that has been cited for its incomplete and slow implementation of such programs.

Last month, the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, released a report that cited delays in efforts to address problems among the mentally ill population, and urged an end to using police officers as the first line of response. According to a report from Mr. Williams’s office, less than one-third of all police officers had received crisis training by 2019 before it was paused by the pandemic.

It also remained unclear how involved the department was in discussions involving the mayor’s new initiative.

Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell was notably absent at the mayor’s news conference announcing the policy. And a statement sent out afterward by the Police Department press office indicated that the agency would accomplish the initiative, but it also hinted that the sweeping plan had blindsided officials:

“The N.Y.P.D. is currently in the process of aligning its policy, guidance and training in conformance with the mayor’s directive, which the department received on Tuesday, November 29” — the day the mayor announced it publicly.

Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, campaigned on bringing safety and sanity to New York.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

On Thursday, while traveling in Greece, Mr. Adams said that police officials, including the commissioner, were involved in “months of planning.”

But while the initiative encourages officers to approach mentally unstable New Yorkers, some officers want assurance that city officials will support their actions and decisions.

“When dealing with mentally disturbed persons, these are dynamic situations that can change instantaneously, either positive or negative,” Mr. Ross said. “There is always the potential for a mistake on law enforcement’s part, whether policy or perception, and in the worst case, tragic mistakes.”

“Most patrol officers know they can be the one hung out to dry,” he said.

Police union officials said Mr. Adams’s directive would exacerbate what they called a “staffing emergency” caused by steady attrition.

The new responsibility will create “a strain on our severely understaffed, overworked and underpaid ranks” and jeopardize officers’ ability to carry out their jobs, said the Police Benevolent Association president, Patrick J. Lynch. He added that officers themselves were trying to learn exactly what their own role would be.

“We need extremely clear guidance and training on when and how we should compel people to accept help,” he said. “We need our leaders to back us up when we carry out these duties.”

Across America, police officers became de facto social workers after deinstitutionalization policies closed many psychiatric hospitals, leaving some patients with nowhere to go — and the right to refuse treatment.

Other large cities have struggled with how to help homeless people, in particular those dealing with mental illness. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law that could force some homeless people with disorders like schizophrenia into treatment.

But some 3,400 people were living on New York’s streets and subways in January, according to an annual estimate that is often criticized as an undercount.

Residents log hundreds of complaints a year about police officers committing mentally ill people against their will. Over the past six years, the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board has received 2,687 allegations that the police took people to the hospital against their will, although few of the claims have been substantiated.

Since taking office in January on a platform of reducing crime, Mr. Adams, a former police captain, has emphasized policing as a social solution, flooding the subway with officers and focusing on quality-of-life offenses.

In October, he and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a broad plan calling for 1,200 additional overtime officer shifts each day on the subway, two new “transition to home” units for those with severe mental illness living on the street or in the subway, and two new dedicated 25-bed units at psychiatric centers.

The mayor has called mental illness the primary reason that crime in the subway has increased by almost 40 percent from last year. However, the Police Department has been slow to develop the skills to handle it.

In 2015, the city promised that officers would be trained on how to de-escalate interactions with emotionally disturbed people. A 2017 report by the city’s Department of Investigation found some deficiencies in the program and a failure to implement certain aspects of it.

In the multiday training workshop, which includes mental health clinicians and personal testimonials from civilians who suffer from various forms of illness, officers are taught how to calm crisis situations by developing a rapport and remaining courteous and empathetic.

Trainees are placed in simulated crisis situations with improvisational actors who depict various mental disorders and conditions.

But many of the city’s 36,000 uniformed officers have still not gone through the training program.

When reporters pressed Mr. Adams in Greece for details on how officers would carry out his plan, he said they would work with special clinicians and mobile crisis teams, and have access to a hotline to seek guidance from professionals. They should, the mayor said, rely on visual cues and “common sense.”

Brittany Kriegstein contributed reporting.

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