NEW YORK — More seriously mentally ill New Yorkers will be transported to area hospitals for psychiatric evaluations without their consent under a directive Mayor Eric Adams issued Tuesday.
Emergency workers are already empowered to hold dangerously violent individuals. But the directive expands the interpretation of that policy to include more people whose inability to care for themselves places them in more subtle forms of danger.
The mayor and his aides did not precisely define those “basic needs” or say how city workers would determine whether they were being met. Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom said the determinations would be made “case by case.”
Police officers, firefighters and Department of Health workers will be able to hold such individuals after the city workers undergo imminent training sessions — a plan that civil rights activists immediately took issue with.
The announcement, delivered from City Hall as Adams nears the end of his first year in office, is intended to tackle one of the Democratic mayor’s most persistent and complicated problems — which touches on public safety, human rights and the city’s appearance. But its success hinges on potentially costly solutions the city has not yet arrived at: A lack of mental health resources and affordable housing for those with severe financial needs.
During a press conference following his speech, Adams admitted the city needs more state-funded psychiatric beds as this initiative takes hold. In fact, the city has just 50 empty beds provided by Gov. Kathy Hochul at its disposal, he said.
“I want to talk to you about a crisis we see all around us: People with severe and untreated mental illness who live out in the open, on the streets, in our subways — in danger and in need,” the mayor said during his 19-minute address.
“We see them every day and our city workers are familiar with their stories: The man standing all day on the street across from the building he was evicted from 25 years ago, waiting to be let in. The shadow boxer on the street corner in Midtown, mumbling to himself as he jabs at an invisible adversary,” Adams added. “These New Yorkers and hundreds of others like them are in urgent need of treatment, yet often refuse it when offered.”
While his message was clear, supporting details were vague.
Adams and a team of deputy mayors, lawyers and press officials said they do not yet know how many people would be transported to hospitals, how many city workers would be tasked with this effort and exactly how much it would cost.
Adams said state law already allows the city to intervene when mental illness prevents New Yorkers from meeting basic needs, but “a common misunderstanding persists that we cannot provide involuntary assistance” unless a person presents immediate harm.
“This myth must be put to rest,” he added.
He’s asking the state to clarify the basic needs standard that was set in a 1980s court case.
The New York Civil Liberties Union accused Adams in a statement of “playing fast and loose with the legal rights of New Yorkers” without “the resources necessary to address the mental health crises that affect our communities.”
“The federal and state constitutions impose strict limits on the government’s ability to detain people experiencing mental illness — limits that the Mayor’s proposed expansion is likely to violate,” the organization’s executive director, Donna Lieberman, added in the statement. “The mayor’s attempt to police away homelessness and sweep individuals out of sight is a page from the failed Giuliani playbook. With no real plan for housing, services, or support, the administration is choosing handcuffs and coercion.”
City lawmakers were divided on the news.
“Who’s determining that they’re dangerous to anybody but themselves?” Democratic City Council Member Diana Ayala, who chairs the General Welfare Committee, said in a brief interview. “I don’t know that picking folks up and dragging them to the ER is even legal.”
“I don’t think it is the job of law enforcement to address a social service public health issue,” she added. “They’re not trained to do this, they’re not mental health providers and quite frankly — from what I hear from officers on the streets — it’s not something they want to do either.”
Adams said the existing law is clear, but police hesitated to apply the basic needs standard. Moving forward, the city will provide healthcare professionals who can advise responding officers via phone or video call on whether an individual qualifies.
Ayala, a Bronx representative whose brother suffers from psychiatric illness, said the city lacks mental health resources — particularly in low-income areas.
Council Member Bob Holden, a conservative Democrat representing Queens, issued a statement applauding the mayor’s announcement.
“There are ticking time bombs — who are a threat to themselves or others — riding our subways and walking our streets,” Holden said. “Serious mental illness, if left untreated, will only get worse. Let’s get these New Yorkers the help they desperately need and deserve and make our streets and subways safer for all.”
The Legal Aid Society, a frequent critic of Adams, issued a joint statement with several public defender organizations saying they are “heartened to hear that Mayor Adams acknowledges that community-based treatment and least-restrictive services must guide the path to rehabilitation and recovery.”
However, the groups said they are instead advocating for pending state legislation that provides voluntary methods to connect those people with services.