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Judge Delays Ruling on Adams’ Mental Health ‘Involuntary Removal’ Plan

Advocates for those with mental health issues requested a temporary stay on the new plan they say broadened the justification for forcibly detaining people. City lawyers say no one has been taken in yet.

December 13, 2022 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
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A federal judge Monday reserved judgment on a request to halt Mayor Eric Adams’ plan to expand the use of involuntary commitment for people having mental health crises.

Manhattan Federal Judge Paul Crotty postponed deciding on a request by lawyers and advocates for the mentally ill for a temporary restraining order that would have put the brakes on the mayor’s “Involuntary Removal Directive,” which went into effect Nov. 29.

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But the judge had also questioned whether anybody has been directly affected by the new initiative — and thus whether the request to stop enforcement was premature.

City Hall lawyer Alan Scheiner stated flatly that the answer was no, asserting that there is “not a single example of someone taken into custody because of this initiative.”

The judge referenced a plaintiff in the case, Steven Greene, a 26-year-old diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and attention deficit disorder (ADD) who says he’s been involuntarily detained three times by police responding to mental health calls in the last few years — all before the new expansion.

“What about Mr. Greene’s statement that he’s afraid to go out on the street?” Crotty asked.

Greene’s most recent detention in 2020 happened before Adams even ran for office, but in an affidavit filed in the request to halt the plan, Greene asserted the new initiative has left him in fear.

“As a result of the mayor’s announcement, I am afraid to leave my apartment,” he stated. “I am now constantly fearful that my mental disability will cause an NYPD officer to forcibly and violently detain me and hospitalize me against my will.”

“My PTSD has been exacerbated by this announcement,” he added.

New vs. Old

During an hour-long court hearing, plaintiff attorneys from New York Lawyers for the Public Interest insisted that the mayor’s announcement was clearly a new initiative, while the city attorney described it as merely an effort to educate police about a tool they already had.

Prior to Adams’ announcement last month, city policy had been to involuntarily detain a person experiencing a mental health crisis only if they were deemed to be an immediate risk to themselves or others. Typically that meant evidence or an observation that they had actually threatened to harm others or themselves.

Adams’ said that he was expanding that to say anyone who appeared to be mentally ill and unable to take care of their own basic needs would be eligible — “even when no recent dangerous act has been observed.”

The new protocol listed three examples that could initiate involuntary removal: “serious untreated physical injuries, unawareness or delusional misapprehension of surroundings, or unawareness or misapprehension of physical condition or health.”

Dozens of mental health advocates protested at City Hall on Dec. 8, 2022. One holds a sign reading, “Fund Better Mental Health Not Weaponize It”
Dozens of mental health advocates protested at City Hall on Dec. 8, 2022. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Advocates for those with mental disabilities, including Community Access, National Alliance on Mental Illness of New York, and Correct Crisis Intervention Today, argue that this language is so broad it could result in people being forcibly detained against their will merely for mumbling to themselves or appearing to be homeless on a cold night.

“Police officers are now going to be policing mental health,” said a lawyer for the groups, Luna Droubi of the firm Beldock Levine and Hoffman. “This is policing someone for being homeless. This is policing someone for being mentally ill.”

The city’s lawyer, Scheiner, questioned the motivation of the groups in moving to halt the new effort, arguing that the mayor’s intent was to provide more help — not less — to those with mental disabilities who are unable to provide for themselves.

“What the plaintiffs appear to want, and I find this a bit perverse, is for mentally ill people to starve to death, bleed to death in the street, walk into traffic,” he said.

‘Triggering’ Tactics

The request for the temporary stay was filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Greene and others who’ve been detained against their will by police in the last few years for psychiatric reasons.

That includes the case of Peggy Herrera, highlighted Monday by THE CITY. Herrera called 911 seeking help when her 21-year-old son, Justin Baerga, was having a mental health crisis, specifically asking them to send EMTs — not police. Several cops showed up anyway and Herrera wound up handcuffed and arrested while Baerga was beaten, handcuffed and brought to a nearby hospital psychiatric ward.

In requesting a temporary stay on Adams’ new directive, lawyers suing the city in the ongoing case warned about “police officers with little to no expertise in dealing with individuals with mental disabilities who will be required to determine whether an individual should be forcefully — often violently — detained against their will.”

In Greene’s case, regular police officers, Emergency Service Unit (ESU) cops and EMTs showed up at his Bronx apartment in May 2020. Unbeknownst to Greene,  the cops were responding to a 911 call that came in as “EDP [emotionally disturbed person] with a gun,” according to the lawsuit.

When Greene answered the door and stepped into the hallway, an ESU cop asked him if he was suicidal, and another cop told him his social worker had called 911 to ask police to check on him. An EMT at the scene then said he’d need to go to the hospital because of the call from the social worker, whom he did not identify.

Greene denied being suicidal and refused to go to the hospital. When he turned and re-entered his apartment, the cops followed and eventually handcuffed him.

On the street, he was forcibly strapped to a gurney and placed in an ambulance. On the way to North Central Bronx Hospital, he told the EMTs that “they should not barge into the apartment of someone who has PTSD because it is triggering,” the lawsuit states.

Greene was released from the hospital a few hours after he arrived, and his lawyers say this was not a new experience for him. He had been detained against his will on two prior occasions, according to the suit.

The judge did not say when he would make a decision in the case.

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