One year ago Wednesday, Deborah Danner, a mentally ill 66-year-old woman, was fatally shot by NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry while he was responding to a 911 call about a person screaming and acting erratically. It wasn’t the first time police had been called to aid Danner, who neighbors said did well when she was on medication. Those previous calls went off without incident.
This time Barry found Danner — who had written eloquently about the “curse” of having schizophrenia — naked and armed with scissors. She put the scissors down, but when she came toward him with a bat in hand, he felt threatened and shot her with his gun rather than a Taser.
The police step in only after the mental health system fails. And it frequently fails.
Mental health industry leaders will mark the occasion by gathering on the steps of City Hall today to demand the Police Department — which is already giving thousands more officers training in how to handle mentally ill individuals — further reform its practices, and that the mayor set up a new commission to force them to make changes.
They’re putting pressure in the wrong place. We’d have fewer Deborah Danner-type tragedies if advocates focused their fire not on the cops, but on the chronic failures of our horribly inadequate mental health system.
The death of Danner was a tragedy for her and her family, as it was for Barry and his family. But the reality is that police step in only after the mental health system fails. And it frequently fails. According to the NYPD inspector general, there were 157,000 911 calls for emotionally disturbed persons in 2016. A mayoral task force reported that the mentally ill now fill 38% of all city jail cells. The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene admits 90,000 city residents with serious mental illness received zero treatment in 2015.
Those are examples of mental health system failures, not police failures.
The mental health advocates have shown little interest in taking steps to stop the mental-illness-to-criminal-justice pipeline. While researching my book, I discovered that nationwide the mental health industry primarily focuses on improving mental wellness in the masses, rather than treating the most seriously mentally ill, like Danner.
That exact approach is echoed in New York City, where Mayor de Blasio says he is focusing more resources than ever on mental health problems. But the highest-functioning individuals go into programs and the noncompliant, psychotic and delusional are offloaded to police.
Danner is the poster child for the failure of the mental health system. She was intelligent, literate and had a good job before taking ill. Prior to the shooting, she had been a member of the city’s finest program for the seriously mentally ill, Fountain House.
But as Executive Director Kenn Dudek wrote, she had dropped out, and because de Blasio’s city government cut Fountain House’s budget by half a million dollars, Fountain House couldn’t send a case manager to her home to re-engage her.
De Blasio wasn’t lacking money. He spends $800 million on his ThriveNYC mental health plan. But that plan has never been focused on helping the most seriously mentally ill, as the growing numbers of mentally ill homeless sleeping on the streets make clear.
Danner is the poster child for the failure of the mental health system.
Another program that might have helped Danner is Kendra’s Law. It allows courts to order mentally ill persons with a history of multiple arrests or multiple hospitalizations — Danner had 10 — to stay in one year of treatment while they live in the community. Had she been under a Kendra’s Law order, she would have had a case manager assigned to help her. That might have avoided the need to call the police.
Criminal justice officials should resist the protestors’ calls to participate in yet another joint mental health-criminal justice task force. We had joint task forces in 2008 and 2014. In both cases, the mental health members focused on improving criminal justice procedures rather than their own.
Police and criminal justice officials should make unilateral recommendations to the mayor along the lines of those proposed by former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton at a Manhattan Institute forum. He argued that to help the seriously mentally ill, the mental health system should increase the number of hospital beds, loosen civil commitment procedures and more robustly implement Kendra’s Law.
In fact, the police unions could propose these reforms at their own rally on the steps of City Hall to honor NYPD Officers Miosotis Familia, Eder Loor, Rafael Ramos, Wenjian Liu, William Fair, Phillip White, Paul Tuozzolo, Emmanuel Kwo and all the other officers who have been injured or killed by persons with serious mental illness the mental health system failed to treat.
A rally to improve the mental health system would be a truly fitting honor for Deborah Danner.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News
DJ Jaffe is Executive Director of Mental Illness Policy Org., and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill.