Coalition Testifies on NYPD’s Responses to Persons in Mental Health Crisis

According to national estimates, nearly one-third of homeless single adults in shelters likely suffer from a severe mental illness and/or chronic substance use disorder – and the rates are even higher for homeless adults sleeping on the streets. Unfortunately, far too many New Yorkers experience barriers to comprehensive mental health supports. Even more disturbing are the number of dangerous or deadly interactions that persons with mental illness have been having with police officers.

On Wednesday, Coalition for the Homeless and The Legal Aid Society presented testimony before the New York City Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disability, Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Disability Services on “Oversight: NYPD’s Responses to Persons in Mental Health Crisis.” The testimony emphasized that while the City has made some progress in training officers and providing alternatives to the criminal justice system for people with mental illness, the progress has been inadequate to reduce the significant – and needless – risks to this population. More must be done.

Specifically, the NYPD must expand the intensive Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for officers responding to emotionally disturbed persons, and ensure that officers trained in CIT techniques are in fact the ones being called to respond to mental health crisis calls and all interactions with homeless New Yorkers.

Of note, in its response the NYPD claims to have trained 5,217 officers in CIT techniques, towards its goal of training 5,500 officers. We understand, however, that the NYPD is now counting a watered down version of the training for new recruits as a part of that total. While an introduction of the CIT concepts to people who have never been in the field is a good idea, this training is hardly the equivalent to the fully developed course. We urge that the Council to require additional and more intensive training of patrol officers.

It is also important to note that individuals who are homeless and living on the streets have much higher rates of severe mental illness than the general population and come into contact with NYPD much more frequently. It is therefore crucial that all officers responding to an emotionally disturbed person on the street or in a shelter be trained appropriately.

In addition to requiring additional and more intensive training, we believe that an important next step for the City is the establishment of fully operational, specially designated diversion centers – rather than hospital emergency rooms – for use as an alternative to arrest.

We know that mentally ill persons arrested by the police comprise a significant proportion the population of Rikers Island. … In 2014, the City reported that people with mental illness had risen to 38% of the jail population, and people with serious mental illness comprised 7% of the total population.

The practice of arrest and jail that has caused a growing percentage of mentally ill persons to be incarcerated is an expensive one for New York City taxpayers. According to a study of the City Independent Budget Office, it costs an average of $167,731 per year to feed, house and guard each inmate at Rikers Island. The arrest practice also creates added costs for the court, prosecution and defense. Additionally, with higher rates of severe mental illness among street homeless individuals, the practice of arresting individuals with mental illness has led countless individuals to cycle in and out of homelessness and jails, without ever receiving the appropriate care to meet their needs, at great expense to those individuals’ personal health and City taxpayers.

We recognize that the City has begun to take steps to divert mentally ill persons out of the criminal justice system, but much more needs to be done. The addition of fully developed drop-off centers where those in crisis can receive appropriate treatment is an essential next step.

The full testimony can be read here.