Crime on the subway is in large part being driven by people with mental illness — at least according to Mayor Eric Adams.
Last week, Adams authorized city emergency personnel to forcibly remove people assumed to be experiencing mental illness from public spaces.
Flanked by city officials, elected leaders and judges, he framed the policy as an effort to give people experiencing mental illness a chance at “dignity,” instead of ignoring what he suggested was a likely path toward “carry[ing] out a dangerous act.”
Yet there is little available data that draws a neat line between mental illness and crime, let alone violent crime. Several studies, which did not look specifically at New York City, have concluded that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators.
Experts in mental health care said they want to see the city and state taking more direct steps to help people who may need housing and psychiatric care. But they are concerned that the new policy isn’t nuanced enough to avoid criminalizing mental illness broadly, especially without clear data that shows a relationship between mental crisis and committing crimes.
“We’re going back to the days of coercion, forced hospitalization, more wards on the state hospital grounds,” said Harvey Rosenthal, the chief executive of NYAPRS, an advocacy group for people in mental health treatment, referring to the history of involuntary commitment of people with mental illness in institutions. “This is a very dangerous return to the past.”
Several high-profile crimes in recent years have drawn attention to mental illness as a possible predictor for assaults, or worse. Perhaps most infamously, the man who pushed Michelle Go in front of a subway train in January was deemed mentally unfit for trial.
In May, police officials offered statistics at a City Council hearing showing that at least half of people arrested for hate crimes in the first four months of the year were already designated by the department as “emotionally disturbed.”
Adams has recently begun explicitly tying mental illness to crime.
“When you do an analysis of the subway crimes we are seeing, you are seeing it is driven by people with mental health issues,” Adams said in October.
Last week, Adams suggested that without the new forcible removal policy, a mentally ill person might inevitably commit a violent act.
“That is just so irresponsible, that we know that this person is about to probably go off the edge and harm someone, but we're gonna wait until it happens,” Adams said. “Not in this administration.”
Yet experts said that Adams’ rhetoric broadly tying mental illness to crime was unfounded.
“There's no cause and effect (of) if someone has a mental illness, they’re inevitably going to commit a violent crime. Absolutely not the case,” said Ruth O’Sullivan, the clinical director for Brooklyn Mental Health Court.
Press representatives for Adams did not respond to a request to share any analyses of crime data that support a connection between mental illness and crime. The NYPD did not respond to questions around whether its data demonstrates that connection.
In a statement, the NYPD said it is in the process of “aligning its policy, guidance, and training in conformance with the Mayor’s directive.”
“Every City agency received this directive November 29th, however we have been working with the Mayor’s office and our government partners for months regarding this important health-first initiative,” the statement said.
According to data on emergency police dispatches from this year, calls related to a person experiencing a mental health crisis have increased from January to September — the last month for which data is publicly available — from 13,671 to 14,986.
Already, 2022 has seen more than 134,000 NYPD dispatches related to an “emotionally disturbed person.” In all of 2018, the city had 180,000 such calls, according to NY1 reporting partner The City.
Yet calls involving emotionally disturbed persons have declined in the transit system, from 725 in January to 513 in September.
While data tends to show a connection between incarceration and mental illness, experts said it’s not clear that there is any causal relationship between having a chronic issue such as schizophrenia or a behavioral disorder and committing crimes. Jail may exacerbate mental illness due to lack of treatment, they said.
In recent years, as the population on Rikers Island has decreased, the proportion of people in the jail diagnosed with a mental illness has increased, according to a 2021 analysis by researchers at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
That report found that there is a higher prevalence of mental illness in people who saw any amount of jail time, and that increased jail time meant an even stronger association with serious mental illness. According to the report, in 2012, more than three-fourths of people who were in the top 10% for total number of admissions to city jails had a serious mental illness.
Only a fraction of the money spent on these inmates was for outpatient or preventative health care, the report found.
To be sure, O’Sullivan said she believes, based on her experience, that people experiencing both a total lack of shelter and untreated mental illness are more likely to commit acts of violence.
“You don't sleep, you don't eat well, you're not being cared for, you don't trust the world, yes, probably you’re more likely to behave in a violent way, because you’re in survival mode,” she said.
O’Sullivan, who has worked in mental health care in the court system for 20 years, said she was concerned that the Adams administration had not been clear about what population it is focusing on with the forced removal policy.
She said she appreciates that his administration is focusing on this issue, but is concerned that the city’s hospitals and shelters are not prepared to handle an influx of new, involuntary patients.
“Do I think removing these folk and bringing them to the hospital is the answer? No,” she said. “Do I think we should do nothing? No.”