Citing Safety, New York Moves Mentally Ill People Out of the Subway

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Inside a subway station in Lower Manhattan, a group of police officers slowly followed a disheveled man in a soiled gray sweatshirt who was stammering and thrashing his arms wildly.

“Please, leave me alone,” he shouted. He thumped his chest with an open palm and then, growing exasperated, sat down on a staircase. “What did I do wrong?”

Mucus had crusted in his beard. A pair of stained pants hung off his slender frame.

“Come on,” one officer, Heather Cicinnati, said as the man stumbled forward, disoriented and agitated. “We’ve got to leave the station.”

The police officers were part of a team led by a medical worker whose job is to move — by force, if needed — mentally ill people, who are often homeless, out of New York City’s transit system. On that brisk March morning, the team handcuffed him and dragged him out of the subway station. Then, they placed a white spit hood over his head.

The intervention teams are part of an expansive effort to make the subway safer after a string of shocking crimes. Part of the plan involves finding solutions to one of the transit system’s most frustrating problems: people experiencing mental health issues and homelessness living on trains and in stations.

Officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the subway, said they were doing what was necessary to help troubled people while keeping them away from passengers. In survey after survey, riders have said they would use mass transit more often if they saw fewer people behaving erratically and more police officers.

But some advocates for mentally ill people believe the teams use heavy-handed tactics that do more harm than good. Ruth Lowenkron, director of the disability justice program for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, expressed dismay over the team’s use of a spit hood and called it “an anachronistic tool.”

“This is not who we want to be as a society,” Ms. Lowenkron said. “There’s no reason to do this. And it is not going to make people safer.”

In defense of the method, M.T.A. officials said that the agency’s police officers must sometimes restrain people who are suffering from severe psychiatric distress in order to provide them with critical medical care.

Launched last fall, the program, called Subway Co-Response Outreach, or SCOUT, has removed at least 113 people from the subway. Most go willingly to shelters, or to hospitals for medical treatment, according to transit officials.

Among the people removed from the subway, 16 have been sent to the hospital against their will for psychiatric assessments. Most involuntary detainees were admitted as patients.

“This is the governor and the city and the M.T.A. coming together to do something about it,” Tim Minton, a spokesman for the authority, said as the officers detained the distraught man in March. “To try to help people who need treatment, who need assistance, and not just walk away from it.”

Violent attacks by homeless, mentally ill people are relatively rare, and mentally ill people are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than to commit one. But some New Yorkers were put on edge by a series of high-profile attacks carried out by mentally ill homeless people in recent months. Crime rates also surged in the transit system early this year before easing.

The SCOUT program is growing — in March, Gov. Kathy Hochul said the state would provide $20 million to expand it from two teams to as many as a dozen by the end of 2025. City and state officials have also flooded the transit system with thousands of police officers and surveillance cameras. In March, Ms. Hochul deployed the National Guard in the system, building up to a force of roughly 3,000 law enforcement officers dedicated to patrolling mass transit. In late 2022, she told the M.T.A. to put cameras in every train car, and today there are about 16,000 systemwide.

Every weekday, the two SCOUT teams, each made up of one medical worker and two to three M.T.A. police officers, roam some of the subway’s busiest stations in search of people who appear to be sheltering there.

Just before the encounter in March at the Fulton Street station in Lower Manhattan, the team’s medical worker, Ameed Ademolu, 41, had already ejected several people from the subway that morning without any resistance.

Mr. Ademolu was carrying a clipboard and wearing an orange vest and face mask when he walked up to the man in the gray sweatshirt. The officers, standing a few yards away as they awaited Mr. Ademolu’s orders, watched in case the man or any onlookers lashed out.

Mr. Ademolu quickly made the call: The officers would need to take the man to a hospital against his will. He resisted for about 20 minutes, ranting and fumbling through his pockets.

State laws allow both the police and medical workers to take people to a hospital by force when their behavior poses a threat of “serious harm” to themselves or others.

Once outside, the officers pressed the handcuffed man against a wall and put the spit hood over his head because, they said, he was spraying mucus onto the officers as he shouted. Then, they strapped him to a gurney for transport to Bellevue Hospital.

Nancy Juarez, 25, from Brooklyn, was walking by the scene with a friend when she stopped and urged the officers to let the man go.

“This is harm,” said Ms. Juarez, who said that she works mostly remotely as a policy analyst at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that opposes incarceration. “This causes more trauma.”

But officials said that some people who have been removed from the system have behaved in ways that put themselves and others at risk. One person was known to light fires inside a station. Another was reported to have pushed a rider toward the tracks, and a third said he believed that he was in Iraq and that the outreach team was a group of hostile soldiers.

Sergeant Steven Simmons, 26, who serves on a SCOUT team, said he was frustrated by the reactions of some observers who seemed to misunderstand the team’s intent. He said he believed that the work he was doing was helping people who would otherwise languish on the street.

“We just have to know in our own hearts that we’re getting him the help he needs,” he said. “Sometimes, you can’t please everyone, unfortunately.”

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