Home News Harry Siegel: New York’s subway can’t be a psychiatric ward

Harry Siegel: New York’s subway can’t be a psychiatric ward

The NYPD waved a white flag with Transit Chief Michael Kemper’s declaration that “You cannot arrest your way out of the problem” — the problem being severely mentally ill people underground including the handful of them who account for a vastly outsized share of attacks on transit workers. 

“Mental health — a person in the throes of an episode — is an ongoing problem, and obviously our tools cannot address the persistent issue of mental illness,” Kemper continued. 

“We are equipped to stop an immediate threat, in one moment, at a time; disrupt a single act.”  

That buck-passing touches on something my friend Alex Brook Lynn, whose schizophrenic brother, Zack, took his life while in the train system more than a decade ago, said last week about Gov. Hochul’s bass-ackwards deployment of soldiers into New York City’s trains to do police work.

Maybe, Alex hoped, since Hochul’s plan also included bringing in State Police, someone with the government’s monopoly on force would actually team up with social workers and do what the city’s cops have not. 

That means actually engaging with the severely mentally inside the subways rather than leave clearly disturbed people with visibly rotting bodies and distressed minds in the midst of the city’s circulatory system to their own devices in supposedly benign neglect. 

It turns out a little of that was already happening, with the MTA police stepping in where New York’s finest have loathed to tread and the military has no business being in a pilot program both publicly announced and massively expanded by Hohcul at the same time she sent in the Guard, which understandably drew all the public attention. 

Over about 80 days, including a training period, the Subway Co-Response Outreach Teams (SCOUT) program of one clinician paired with two or three MTA cops to go around Manhattan’s subway stations assessing people who gave indications of being severely mentally ill, including those whose conditions prevent them from recognizing that they’re ill at all. In that stretch, about 75 people ended up getting psychiatric help, through 15 “nine five eight” compulsory hospital admissions for evaluations, 15 voluntary admissions and 45 placements in shelters with mental-health services.

The $20 million Hochul just announced will expand SCOUT from two teams to ten — enough to potentially make a real impact on the fairly small but hugely difficult to help or manage population of severely mentally ill people living on the streets and in the trains. 

This isn’t about building long-term rapports, but about clinicians, with cops there to support them and use force when necessary, making binding determinations before someone poses the sort of immediate threat to others or themselves that Kemper put out as the threshold for police involvement. 

He’s saying that someone lying in the same station day after day with their pants around their ankles by a mound of their half-stubbed smokes or growling to themselves while swinging their arms wildly on crowded platforms doesn’t amount to police business. 

Hours after his transit chief said the NYPD wasn’t equipped to do much, Eric Adams said of Thursday’s nightmarish train shooting — the ninth so far this year compared to one to this point last year — that “when I looked at this tape and broke it down piece by piece and frame by frame, it is clear that it personifies what our pursuit is in Albany around those with severe mental health illnesses.”

But it wasn’t clear watching witness videos whether or not the man who ended up getting shot in the head by his own gun after insisting on fighting another, much smaller, straphanger while saying hard-to-track stuff about cops was severely mentally ill or just plain-old angry and a little unhinged.

Despite the “smart set” shrugging about how the crime numbers are just fine and things were way worse in 1989, polling makes clear New Yorkers are widely concerned about public safety as also reflected in its diminished post-pandemic train ridership and significant outer-borough population decline. 

Hochul’s plan came across as a pricey press release in search of a strategy, while needlessly involving the military in domestic policing. 

While she well might wrap up her widely mocked temporary deployment with much less fanfare in a matter of weeks, the governor may have stumbled into a smart idea in SCOUT if she has the wherewithal to see it through and track its results, while also getting New York the psychiatric beds, nurses and resources it obviously, desperately needs.

Absent those, the choice will inevitably be between leaving sick people to fend for themselves or using the subways and lock-ups as de-facto mental wards. 

Siegel (harrysiegel@gmail.com) is an editor at The City and a columnist for the Daily News.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here