NYC Monitoring of Mentally Ill Sparks Rights Concerns


When a homeless man was taken for a psychiatric evaluation because he argued with shelter police, doctors found no reason to commit him. Then City Hall stepped in.

At the urging of a mayoral aide who cited a new city program to monitor mentally ill people considered potentially violent, the man was involuntarily hospitalized for a week. A judge finally ordered his release, ruling that the man’s commitment violated his civil rights and that bureaucrats had meddled in his medical treatment.

The case crystallizes the unease that has surrounded the NYC Safe program since Mayor Bill de Blasio launched it last summer, after some high-profile attacks raised alarm about the mentally ill.

The program — apparently unique among American cities — keeps tabs on a roster of people with psychiatric problems and a history of violence, hoping to help them before they reach a breaking point.

So far, NYC Safe is monitoring more than 100 people, more than half of whom are in jail, prison or a locked hospital ward. City officials say administration policy is not to divulge who is on the list, though they say those on it are told.

Civil liberties and mental health advocates are concerned about the potential for infringement on liberty and privacy abuses as officials share sensitive information about people among various city agencies.

According to a city memo, homeless shelters refer people based on standards as broad as escalating “aggressive and alarming” conduct. In other cases, mayoral aides simply pick cases from crime stories in newspapers. And there’s not yet a mechanism for people to get off the list once they’re on it.

“Politics is interjected into this difficult decision of who’s a danger to themselves and others,” said Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

City officials say they never should have interfered in clinical decisions. While they will continue tracking certain people, they now plan to expand their effort via data analysis, to spot patterns of when troubled people get to the edge of violence.