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NYC EMS, police skeptical about mayor’s mental health hospitalization plan

“Our worry is that this policy will only exacerbate the danger our members are faced with,” said FDNY EMS union Local 2507 leader Oren Barzilay


New York City Mayor Eric Adams spoke at the 116th St. and Lexington Ave. subway station in Manhattan in late November.

Photo/Luiz C. Ribeiro/The New York Daily News/Tribune News Service

New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently announced a directive for police and emergency medical workers to hospitalize people on the streets and subways who have severe, untreated mental illness.

Page, Wolfberg & Wirth’s Attorney Doug Wolfberg outlines how this directive is a departure from the usual mental health standard and places an undue burden on EMS. Read more and listen to a discussion between Wolfberg and Rob Lawrence on the issue.

By Thomas Tracy, Josephine Stratman, Rocco Parascandola, Michael Gartland and Larry McShane
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — The skepticism was swift and citywide, from police precincts to emergency rooms and EMS ambulances, when New York City Mayor Eric Adams rolled out his new plan to force the mentally ill into medical treatment.

Those front-line first responders, speaking with the Daily News, were quick to question the details surrounding the newly-announced approach to their jobs, specifically citing the increased responsibilities for already busy workers, potential legal issues and threats to their on-the-job safety.

“Our members get routinely assaulted as it is now,” said FDNY EMS union Local 2507 head Oren Barzilay. “Our worry is that this policy will only exacerbate the danger our members are faced with on a daily basis ... The city is not doing much about the assaults on our members as is, and it only got worse with bail reform.”

Sarah Dowd, a registered nurse at Kings County Hospital, held out little hope for the Adams plan, dismissing the new approach as “unreasonable and something we can’t accommodate.” Her opinion was shared by Irving Campbell, a N.Y. Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital nurse for two decades.

“People in the ER are waiting five, six days for a bed,” he said. “It’s great that cops are bringing people in for evaluation, but what do you do after that? That’s really the key.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, in a three-page letter to Adams, posed the most-asked questions about the change. Where, he asked, will the funding come from? What are the plans to train cops and the emergency medical service for this new duty?

And where are the beds for the influx of new patients coming from?

“In asking these questions, I am hoping to continue collaboration and transparency so that all ... understand what steps and processes behind the city’s mental health response look like,” he wrote.

Adams announced the new plan this past Tuesday for first responders and other city workers to deal directly with the mentally ill, with the city more aggressively using a state law to involuntarily place people under immediate care.

“We are going to find a bed for everyone,” he promised last week after Gov. Kathy Hochul provided 50 of them. “We will meet that challenge head-on.”

But a Manhattan New York Police Department supervisor dismissed the City Hall plan as well-intentioned but best left in the hands of trained health care workers. Cops are worried about cases going before the Civilian Complaint Review Board or possible lawsuits linked to the new interventions, he said.

“If they’re mentally ill and they’re homeless, most of the time they’re not going to cooperate,” said the supervisor, who asked to remain anonymous. “Where’s the line? That’s what we want to know. It’s a judgment call — and that’s going to be the problem.”

A City Council source delivered a more pointed take, accusing the administration of “fraudulent PR” and “flimsy rhetoric in response to real questions.”

Dr. Manish Sapra, executive director of behavioral health services at Northwell Health, complained about the lack of warning before the mayor’s Nov. 29 announcement.

“We’re sort of caught off guard,” said Sapra. “We do not have the ability to just suddenly increase the services available in the emergency departments to all the patients coming in and provide them psychiatry consultation.”

PBA President Patrick Lynch, in a statement, offered some support along with several caveats about the role his members will be asked to play.

“We need our leaders to back us up when we carry out these duties,” said Lynch. “And, above all, we need our leaders to recognize that each new responsibility is a strain on our severely understaffed, overworked and underpaid ranks.”

He called for “extremely clear guidance and training” for officers now faced with compelling people to accept assistance.

The initiative is already underway in the subways, where the NYPD Transit Bureau began deploying in teams with clinicians and nurses in October.

“We’re actually having the appropriate credentialed, licensed professionals make the determination ... rather an put the onus on officers,” said NYPD Chief of Interagency Operations Terri Tobin.

The department intends to bring the approach above ground, she added, and the police training bureau is working on the new tactic with city health officials.

The mayor’s unprecedented plan did receive support from the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services, the Bronx Defenders and the Neighborhood Defender Services of Harlem.

But Vincent Variale, head of the FDNY EMS officers’ union, said his workers still need police escorts when transporting the mentally ill to hospitals under the new directives.

“The quiet ones are the ones you have to watch out for, because they can pop at any time,” he said. “And you don’t want to be alone with them in the back of an ambulance when that happens.”

A source at city-run Woodhull Hospital said the only thing certain about the plan was all the uncertainty.

“How’s it going to go?” mused the source. “I’m not really sure. It’s a matter of seeing how it goes.”

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