The spouses and parents of the severely mentally ill would be required by law to alert authorities if their loved ones stopped taking medication and the city would maintain a registry of the severely mentally ill under a proposal pitched on Monday by J.C. Polanco, a Republican running for public advocate.
Joined by Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa and a quartet of supporters on the steps of City Hall, Polanco declared, “It’s time that New York City address the issue of severe mental health illness head-on, aggressively and relentlessly,” adding: “The deaths that result from severe mental health illness like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have reached enormous heights.”
Mental health has been a major focus of the de Blasio administration, whose ThriveNYC initiative will spend $850 million to promote better mental health over the next four years through outreach, research and programs.
But Polanco believes that effort should be reoriented to focus on the severely mentally ill. He pointed to the recent murder of Officer Miosotis Familia. Her killer, Alexander Bonds, was known to have schizophrenia. According to published reports, Bonds believed people were out to kill him and that streetlights conveyed a code that only he could decipher. His girlfriend tried to find him help, to little avail. Bonds was killed by officers shortly after he gunned down Familia.
Polanco called for “mandating that state hospitals and correctional facilities inform the city immediately when anyone is released from their institutions who is suffering from severe mental illness so that our neighbors, our communities and our city can be aware of who dwells among us,” Polanco said. “I call for a registry of these individuals so we are able to keep track of where they are and who they are with.”
The candidate clarified later that the registry would not be open to the public, like the state’s sex offender database, but rather available only to law enforcement and other officials.
Polanco says he’d also mandate that people on the registry be evaluated for a possible court order requiring them to accept treatment under Kendra’s Law. And he’d require that “guardians, parents, spouses and significant others” report when their loved one shows signs of being a danger to themselves or others. “We need to make sure that they do their part to protect first responders,” he said.
An emerging issue
Mental-healthcare for people in the criminal justice system is an issue that has received increased attention over the past two years. In 2015, the state increased the resources available to help prisoners with mental illness plan for treatment after discharge. The overlap between mental health, policing and corrections has part of the ThriveNYC agenda. And this spring, Queens Congressman Joe Crowley introduced a federal bill named after Kalief Browder, the young man who committed suicide after a harrowing ordeal on Rikers Island, to improve discharge planning.
But efforts to take more aggressive steps, like those proposed by Polanco, have faced tougher obstacles. In 2008, a state commission recommended that the governor “create a database to track the mental health care provided to high-need adults.” That year and in 2010, the City Council considered a bill to require the NYPD to create a database of “emotionally disturbed persons,” but it went nowhere.
Today, the NYPD tells City Limits, “There is a system is place in which officers are alerted to prior emotionally disturbed persons( EDP’s) 911 calls for a specific location. We do not have a database with people with severe mental illness.”
Reacting to Polanco’s proposal, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Beth Haroules said in a statement: “This proposal would further stigmatize people with mental illness as being inherently dangerous. It would erode their rights to privacy and due process, and would unfairly and unnecessarily impact their loved ones.”
Polanco noted a shortage of mental-health treatment beds in the city, and argued for efforts to expand those resources.
The post of public advocate is unique to New York City. Each of the four people to hold the post since it was created in 1993 has put an individual stamp on it, but the post’s duties include serving as an ombudsperson for the public. The office currently is budgeted for $3.6 million and a staff of 45. Among the public advocate’s statutory duties are presiding over the City Council at general meetings and serving as the city’s interim leader if the mayor is incapacitated, dies or leaves office.
De Blasio served as public advocate for one term before becoming mayor. He was succeeded in 2014 by the incumbent, Letitia James, a former Brooklyn City Councilmember.
A May Quinnipiac Poll found that voters approved of James’ performance as public advocate by a large margin—49 percent to 18 percent—but also that a fairly high share of the electorate, 33 percent, said they didn’t know enough about her to answer.
The putative Republican nominee, Polanco is a former president of the city’s board of elections and a college lecturer.
Polanco is one of seven people who have lined up to challenge James. Two are Democrats (Community activist Tony Herbert and Columbia lecturer David Eisenbach), and they are joined by Libertarian technologist Davin Balkind, Conservative attorney and airline pilot Michael O’Reilly, Green Party media professional and musician James Lane, and Cardon Pompey, who appears to own a U-Haul office in Brooklyn.
Campaign finance records indicate Polcano has raised $12,793 and spent $2,407, leaving him just under $10,400 in the bank. So far, Polanco trails James—who has $309,700 on hand—and Eisenbach, with $17,400, in the money race.
Polanco faces tough history when it comes to members of the GOP seeking this post. Republicans did not field a candidate in the 2001, 2005 or 2013 races. In the 2009 public advocate race, de Blasio beat his Republican opponent by a better than four-to-one margin.
Polanco also has the Reform Party endorsement. Sliwa, the Reform Party state chair, praised the candidate as, “Someone who has proven in the past, at the Board of Elections, to be on each of those commissioner’s jockstraps.”
The story was written by Jarrett Murphy and reporter by Janiya Taylor, Jonah Muhammad, LaShea Gallop, Lianis Rodriguez, Maquan Keith, Terrence Freeman and Valeria Hernandez. The reporters are members of our Youth Training Program in Public-Service Journalism.