When Mayor Eric Adams took office in January on a platform of reducing crime, some left-leaning Democrats feared that he would prioritize policing efforts over some of the root issues in crime, like mental illness or unemployment.
As he nears the end of his first year as mayor, Mr. Adams has indeed emphasized policing, flooding the subway with officers and focusing on quality-of-life offenses.
But the city’s efforts to strengthen its response to people suffering from mental illness have lagged, according to a report to be released on Friday by its public advocate, Jumaane Williams.
Since 2019, the report found that the number of mental health crisis centers has declined by half, while the number of mobile mental crisis response teams has also fallen. The report found that police officers are not receiving sufficient mental crisis response training, yet are still the main option in responding to mental health emergencies.
“The ongoing reckoning with how we define and produce public safety has also put a spotlight on the need to holistically address this crisis as an issue of health, rather than simply law enforcement,” Mr. Williams wrote in a letter to the mayor.
Mr. Adams has not ignored the city’s mental health crisis, nor its potential effect on public safety. 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 street and subway homeless with severe mental illnesses, and two new dedicated 25-bed units at psychiatric centers.
New York’s Mental Illness Policy
After a series of high-profile crimes involving homeless New Yorkers, the city said it would take aggressive measures.
The mayor said last month that mental illness was the primary reason that crime in the subway has increased by almost 40 percent since last year.
“When you do an analysis of the subway crimes, you are seeing that it’s being driven by people with mental health issues,” Mr. Adams said.
Yet when the city was forced this month to cut spending because of a looming multibillion-dollar budget deficitit chose to slash $12 million from the Behavioral Health Emergency Assistance Response Division, or B-Heard, which sends teams of mental health professionals to certain emergencies, rather than the police.
The public advocate’s report urges the city to move away from using police officers as the first line of response to those suffering from acute mental illness. It also recommends that the city create a 311-like hotline for mental health emergencies, and for the Department of Education to provide annual mental health screenings at school.
The report praised the city for creating more drop-in centers where homeless New Yorkers can get food and services. The Adams administration also increased the number of safe haven beds — temporary housing for the homeless that provides mental health and substance abuse services — and committed to having 4,000 beds available.
Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Mr. Adams, said the administration agreed that “much work remains to support our most vulnerable and keep all New Yorkers safe,” noting the public advocate’s recognition that $171 million had been spent on housing and health services for mentally troubled New Yorkers lacking shelter.
Mr. Williams, who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for governor this year, issued a similar report in 2019, and found that the city had reduced some mental health services.
In 2019, there were eight respite care centers that provide alternatives to hospitalization for those suffering from a mental crisis. This year, only four centers are in operation for adults, and one for children. The report calls for an additional $5 million to be allocated to open more centers.
There are currently only two mental health urgent care centers, in East Harlem and the Bronx, but the report recommended at least one in each borough.
The number of mobile crisis teams also declined to 19 from 24 in 2019. The report recommended that teams be available beyond their current 8 am to 8 pm work hours and be reachable via a three-digit telephone number not already associated with the police.
Crime was a major issue in the race for governor and in the midterm elections. Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor, repeatedly portrayed the city as a dangerous place. The message resonated far outside the city’s borders.
“The message, as we’re coming off these midterms, particularly the disaster that happened in the state, is that people are concerned about public safety and we haven’t responded well,” Mr. Williams said. “So it’s either ignoring the problem or jumping to Republican-like talking points that are very harmful.”
While some people with mental health issues have been involved in public safety situations, those situations have not accounted for the rise in crime, said Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability justice program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.
“We need to recognize that if we have better mental health services in place, if we had better housing options in place and full services for a population who have been neglected for decades, that is the way to avoid mental health crises and also avoid a very small percentage of public safety issues,” Ms. Lowenkron said.