It's likely to incite pushback from civil liberties advocates as well as plenty of outcry from residents of other cities like San Francisco who want to see more mentally ill, unhoused people involuntarily committed for treatment.
On Tuesday, New York Mayor Eric Adams announced a sweeping new policy that will put NYPD officers and Emergency Medical Services staff in charge of making decisions to involuntarily commit "severely" mentally ill individuals on the streets of the city. It's an aggressive move that will surely bring legal challenges, not to mention highlighting the lack of sufficient mental health beds that the city has — which is a problem frequently cited by advocates in San Francisco as well.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Adams discussed how New Yorkers "pretend" they don't see the mentally ill who are "unkempt" and "shadowboxing" on the street, as they've become inured to the problem of untreated mental illness. But his comments often seemed to conflate the problem of mental illness with general homelessness itself — discussing the proliferation of tent encampments he's seen in the city and the public health issues surrounding them.
"I know some people may look at what we're doing, saying that we are trying to do something to take away the right of people — no we're not," Adams said. "The right is that people should be able to live in dignity. There's nothing dignified about living a month without having a shower. There's nothing dignified about using the corner of a tent as a restroom."
Citing a state Mental Hygiene Law, Mayor Adams issued a directive calling for the "involuntary removals" of people from the streets of New York, and allowing police officers, as well as clinicians and social workers, "to take into custody, for the purpose of a psychiatric evaluation, an individual who appears to be mentally ill and is conducting themselves in a manner likely to result in serious harm to self or others."
The legal basis for this policy feels shaky, but this sets New York up as a potentially large test of an involuntary commitment policy in modern times. As the directive itself admits, "case law does not provide extensive guidance regarding removals for mental health evaluations based on short interactions in the field."
The New York Post reports that Adams's move comes after a series of attacks by mentally ill individuals in the city's subway system. And the paper notes that Adams appears to be taking a cue from NY Governor Kathy Hochul's expansion of the definition of criteria for involuntary commitment, which includes the inability to care for themselves.
A press release from the mayor's office suggests that "state law and court precedent" give "outreach workers, city-operated hospitals, and first responders... the legal authority to provide care to New Yorkers when severe mental illness prevents them from meeting their own basic human needs to the extent that they are a danger to themselves."
As part of Adams' upcoming legislative agenda, the release says his office will prioritize "Making the law explicit that a person requires care when their mental illness prevents them from meeting their own basic needs."
Adams said during today's press conference, in response to a reporter's question, that he did not know how many individuals the new policy would be likely impact in a given day or week in the city.
San Francisco has no such broad policy, though legislation passed three years ago broadening the criteria for conservatorship for the severely mentally ill. As the Chronicle reported in February, the policy would have applied to around 50 to 100 of the thousands of chronically homeless people in the city, however as of earlier this year, only two individuals had been involuntarily committed.
In July, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman — who has spoken publicly about his mother's mental illness and his desire to deal more compassionately with those suffering, untreated, on the streets — held a special hearing on emergency mental health care. He called for the city to establish a new, long-term-stay hospital for the mentally ill, which we currently do not have — and this is going to present a huge challenge for New York City, no doubt, as well.
Adams said in his remarks Tuesday that NY Governor Kathy Hochul had committed to bringing 50 new mental healthcare beds to the city, but that seems like an exceedingly small number given the scope of this new policy. "We are going to find a bed for everyone," Adams said.