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New York Explains Itself

Some questions and answers about the city’s new mental health initiative.

New York City officials late Monday announced plans to significantly change the way police, medical workers, and prosecutors handle the thousands of mentally ill and drug-addicted people who cycle in and out of the area’s criminal-justice systems each year.

At a cost of $130 million, the expansive initiative will increase the size of pretrial diversion programs to try to keep people with mental illnesses out of the city’s jails. It will also increase the treatment options available in those jails and create new responsibilities for prosecutors by enhancing mental-health screening before suspects are charged with criminal conduct. The idea is to figure out as quickly as possible which people merit treatment rather than incarceration.

Like most collaborative initiatives – some 400 officials, political leaders, and criminal-justice specialists participated in the process – the city’s plan offers something for everyone. The police will get new training and the opportunity for more compensation. The city hopes to reduce the costs of incarceration while making streets safer. Prosecutors will have more options to help keep their dockets less chaotic. And, the hope is, the city’s mentally ill and addicted will have the opportunity, at least, to avoid getting trapped in a cycle of incarceration.

To get a sense of the scope of the challenges raised by the new plan, as well as some insight into the motivation behind the effort, we talked to four local officials who either helped create the initiative or who will be responsible for helping to implement it. Our questions and their responses have been edited for space:

The Marshall Project: Where is the money is coming from?

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance: It is my understanding that $90 million will come from NYC tax levies, and our office has committed $40 million to the initiative coming from our fund from settlements in cases with large financial institutions.

What is this program going to look like on the ground? Is training for medical workers a part of this initiative? When the medical workers are working alongside the cops, who has final word on whether a person is mentally ill and eligible for the diversion programs?

Elizabeth Glazer, New York City’s criminal justice coordinator: We have very different levels of information about what’s going on at different system points. And probably the place that where we have the least amount of information is about our engagement on the street, the array of behavioral health issues that first responders encounter. That’s the reason why, at this stage of the process, we are really a pilot project. We want to better understand what those contacts are, who is out on the street.

The nature of the pilot project is to contract a provider who is skilled in dealing with people with behavioral health issues and to staff a drop-off center that first responders can use. The folks at the drop-off centers, these trained clinicians, will also be able to provide information to police officers on the street. Police officers themselves will be trained to be able to identify some basic behaviors.

How can the police make more – and better – quick judgments about the mental-health status of suspects?

Vance: I think a significant part of the proposal, and one that we are funding, relates to police training. At the end of the day, we have to rely on the training of police officers to make a decision that enhances public safety but also recognizes that there are some situations where locking a person up doesn’t solve the problem. I am convinced that with thoughtful, thorough additional extra training, the police will be better able to handle these situations and make better judgments.

Any areas of the plan itself that concern you?

Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association: I think it is important that individuals that are going to be trained to deal with individuals with mental health issues be trained by a certified individual who is accredited to give the training. Not open up a coloring book and read from it and say, “This is what I want you to do when you encounter someone,” because that can be detrimental not only to the patient, but to the officer involved.

I think also that it’s important that the training not just be an eight-hour course. This has to be long-term.

Tell us more about the details of the training.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman: We plan to design training informed by the LAPD 36-hour training. It will be given first to officers on patrol in Manhattan North and later to officers in a second borough. It will also be integrated into Academy training for recruits, so that eventually, all first responders will have more training in how to identify and respond to people suffering from behavioral health issues. Training will be mandated.

Will officers volunteer for this special training or will they be selected for this training?

Seabrook: It is going to depend upon where they put the [pilot] program. What I would suggest that the commissioner do is put out what is called a teletype requesting that anyone with prior mental health experience submit their resume for consideration for this post. And I would hope that the correction officers that are submitting for that post will receive additional compensation for working with those individuals. I think it should be selective.

How did this come to pass? What got you guys going in this direction?

Seabrook: I believe that the city has finally woken up from the sleep that it has been in for the last decade. I think it is important that people understand, and I have been sounding the alarm for a long time, that Rikers Island has become the new dumping ground for the homeless, the mentally ill, the innocent and the guilty. That is has been turning into the new Bellevue Hospital, if you will. I welcome the opportunity for the mayor to invest the amount of money he is.

Vance: When I became DA in 2010, one of my first meetings was with Brian Fisher, who was then Department of Corrections head for the governor. He said, “Cy, if you can do one thing for me, it would be to do a better job of dealing with mentally ill individuals before they get to state prison.” Obviously, that conversation was being had with dozens of people in law enforcement over the past few years. I think the mayor’s office understood this to be an area that needs fixing.

Tell us about oversight, about fixing the problems that inevitably will arise here.

Glazer: The notion here is to build accountability into the DNA of government. This isn’t just an announcement. A very significant piece of this plan is that starting right, now we have an implementation mechanism that will bring all these players together on a regular basis to ensure that the programs we are funding are effectively and swiftly implemented, to ensure that the planning processes in those areas where we need more information progress efficiently, and also to ensure that all these different groups in and outside of government are able to learn from one another and are able to have a panoramic view of what is working and what is not working.

Seabrook: There is always an avenue for me to say, “This is not working.” At this point, and this is just my belief, that if the rubber meets the road the way it is supposed to, it will be fine. If it is chaos, then I will be the first one saying to the City of New York that it is wasting tax dollars on something that isn’t working.