NYC monitoring of some mentally ill sparks rights concerns

AP News
|
Posted: Apr 18, 2016 12:14 PM
NYC monitoring of some mentally ill sparks rights concerns

NEW YORK (AP) — When a homeless man was taken for a psychiatric evaluation because he argued with shelter police, doctors found no reason to commit him. Then City Hall stepped in.

At the urging of a mayoral aide who cited a new city program to monitor mentally ill people considered potentially violent, the man was involuntarily hospitalized for a week. A judge finally ordered his release, ruling that the man's commitment violated his civil rights and that bureaucrats had meddled in his medical treatment.

The case crystallizes the unease that has surrounded the NYC Safe program since Mayor Bill de Blasio launched it last summer after some high-profile attacks raised alarm about the mentally ill.

The program — apparently unique among American cities — keeps tabs on a roster of people with psychiatric problems and a history of violence, hoping to help them before they reach a breaking point.

So far, NYC Safe is monitoring more than 100 people, more than half of whom are in jail, prison or a locked hospital ward. City officials say administration policy is not to divulge who is on the list, though they say those on it are told.

Civil liberties and mental health advocates are concerned about the potential for infringements on liberty and privacy abuses as officials share sensitive information about people among various city agencies.

According to a city memo obtained by The Associated Press, homeless shelters refer people to the list based on standards as broad as escalating "aggressive and alarming" conduct. In other cases, mayoral aides simply pick cases from crime stories in newspapers. And there's not yet a mechanism for people to get off the list once they're on it.

"Politics is interjected into this difficult decision of who's a danger to themselves and others," said Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

City officials say they never should have interfered in clinical decisions. While they will continue tracking certain people, they now plan to expand their effort via data analysis, to spot patterns of when troubled people get to the edge of violence — perhaps within a certain amount of time after getting out of jail or a hospital.

"We're addressing an issue that's a very difficult problem at the center of civil liberties and public safety," said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. The goal, she said, is a program that's "respectful of privacy and provides a way for people to get help."

The 26-year-old man who sued over his commitment isn't identified in court records. His lawyers declined to comment.

He had a history of violence but showed no signs of serious mental illness when brought in September to Bellevue Hospital, which released him, according to the judge's decision. But then a mayor's office liaison recommended the hospital keep him because he was on the NYC Safe list.

To justify doing that, a doctor said the man was dangerous, citing episodes of troubling behavior at the hospital. But, the judge noted, hospital records showed the man began threatening violence only after learning he was being held indefinitely under the new program.

Glazer said her office's call for committing the man "shouldn't have happened."

The $22-million-a-year NYC Safe is similar to programs universities started after campus shootings to monitor students who may turn violent.

New York's began last year after a spate of attacks allegedly committed by mentally unstable people, including a mother accused of smothering her 20-month-old son in a burger joint bathroom, and a former homeless shelter resident charged with kidnapping and killing the shelter's director. The mayor speeded up the unveiling of NYC Safe after a homeless man abruptly punched a tourist, according to emails obtained by the AP.

The program is designed to enlist law enforcement, health services, homeless shelters and other agencies in looking for signals before someone spirals into violence.

NYC Safe staffers monitor subjects' criminal cases, asking prosecutors to keep them informed about court dates. They check that people on the list show up for treatment, and they sometimes send mental health workers to visit. They also work to connect people with housing, jobs or other services after they get out of jail or the hospital.

"The city is trying to do the right thing," said Mark Murphy of the advocacy group Disability Rights New York, "but it's not clear the people involved get a say in this."

While advocates worry that NYC Safe runs the risk of equating mental illness with violence, city officials have also faced questions of whether the program goes far enough.

It wasn't monitoring a man suspected of killing his homeless shelter roommate in January. The now-dead suspect had a record of psychiatric problems but not violence, officials said.

Glazer said she hopes that NYC Safe can "get better at noticing flags."

___

Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz and Jake Pearson @ JakePearsonAP