Saheed Vassell, who suffered from bipolar disorder and had been in and out of hospitals multiple times in recent years, was shot at 10 times by New York City police on the streets of Crown Heights. They had been called to the scene by locals who thought he had a gun. The police thought so, too, but the gun he was brandishing turned out to be a pipe he was aiming like a gun.
Some citizens are up in arms, blaming the NYPD for Vassell’s death. Their ire is misplaced. They are blaming police for the failure of the city’s mental-health policies. What happened to Vassell in Brooklyn was practically a replay of what happened in The Bronx a year-and-a-half ago to mentally ill Deborah Danner. She, too, was shot by police.
But police shootings of the mentally ill are exceptions, not the rule. Last year, the NYPD responded to 165,000 calls for emotionally disturbed persons and almost all went off without a hitch.
Protesters are wrong to blame police for the failure of the mental-health system and should demand the mental-health department focus on helping the most seriously ill, so police won’t have to be called.
Vassell and Danner had gone to psychiatric hospitals at least twice. But the hospitals released both, and the de Blasio administration failed to provide adequate follow-up. That is what caused these tragedies and will cause future tragedies if not fixed.
Vassell and Danner would likely have been eligible for Kendra’s Law, which allows judges to order them into mandated and monitored treatment. They both had been hospitalized at least twice and had a history of not taking their medication. Rather than discharging them, their doctors could have filed reports petitioning for them to receive Assisted Outpatient Treatment.
Mayor de Blasio should move city evaluators for Kendra’s Law out of a central New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene office in Queens and place them at hospitals, as well as prisons and homeless shelters, to make it easier to enroll those who would benefit from AOT. Recipients would receive medication to control their symptoms, and follow-up care to make sure they’re taking their medicine.
As for now, the police go where the mental-health system won’t: to the aid of the seriously mentally ill. It’s a dangerous business. Twenty-nine percent of all line-of-duty deaths of officers nationally occur on mental-illness-related calls. Protesters are wrong to blame police for the failure of the mental-health system and should demand the mental-health department focus on helping the most seriously ill, so police won’t have to be called.
New York is one of the only jurisdictions in the country where lack of mental-health funds isn’t the problem — de Blasio has committed $850 million to it. The problem is lack of leadership.
The administration has refused to focus those funds on the most seriously ill, and in fact, when the administration is asked why it doesn’t focus on the seriously ill, it claims there is no need to reallocate funds because there is enough money in the budget to be everything to everyone. Skyrocketing rates of homelessness among the mentally ill should prove them wrong.
The failure of the city mental-health system to focus on the most seriously mentally ill — or even to admit it should — has forced police to run a shadow mental-health system. That is what the protesters should be protesting. Vassell’s 15-year-old son lamented, “This is what our society has come to.” A sad and true statement that de Blasio done little to correct.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post
DJ Jaffe is Executive Director of Mental Illness Policy Org., and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill.
Carolyn Gorman is the project manager for education policy and mental-illness policy at the Manhattan Institute.