Can’t replace policing with social services that don’t do what they’re supposed to
Black Lives Matter and other activists are calling on cities across the nation to #DefundthePolice. So what would they have us replace law enforcement with? Many are calling for diverting resources from police to social-service systems, including mental-health care.
The problem is that these arguments studiously ignore the dysfunctional state of the systems we have. Indeed, it’s because of chronic policy failure in areas such as mental health that the police and other public-safety agencies so often find themselves dealing with problems that shouldn’t be their responsibility.
Consider the case of Rashid Brimmage, a 31-year-old homeless New Yorker with a serious mental illness, who has been arrested a whopping 103 times over the last 15 years.
This month, he allegedly shoved to the ground a 92-year-old woman near the corner of Third Avenue and East 16th Street in Manhattan. Surveillance video of the incident shows her striking her head against a fire hydrant and Brimmage proceeding along without even breaking his stride. The alleged assault was random and completely unprovoked.
Would more spending on mental health have kept Brimmage out of jail and his victim from having been put “in a state where [she’s] fearful to walk the streets alone,” as The Post has reported?
Probably not. We know this, because we tried it, via Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile ThriveNYC initiative and other equally expensive and misbegotten programs in the Big Apple.
If states and cities are “laboratories of democracy,” New York should be seen as an experiment in whether vast spending on social services fixes social problems. The budgets of Gotham’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the New York state Office of Mental Health are the envy of social workers in poorer red states. And yet the results are utterly underwhelming.
Even if they haven’t been assaulted by the mentally ill, many Gothamites have shared subway cars with symptomatic street people and grown inured to headline-grabbing atrocities. Before Brimmage, there was Randy Santos, the perp behind the Chinatown stabbing spree last fall.
Before Santos, there was David Aleer-Chol, a mentally ill homeless man busted in 2018 for sending a senior citizen to the hospital after assaulting him near Bryant Park with a bike lock. And then there was Marcus Gomez, a resident of the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center arrested on charges that he repeatedly stabbed his grandmother’s home-health aide the same year.
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The data back up New Yorkers’ impressions of a broken mental-health system. As of last year, about 17 percent of the city’s jail inmates have a serious mental illness, as do more than 13,000 of the homeless. Both metrics have been on the rise during the ThriveNYC era.
Launched in 2015, Hizzoner’s Thrive initiative has faced withering criticism for its lack of accountability and opacity. Its core flaw, though, is its neglect of cases like Brimmage.
The program dedicates only a token share of its $222 million annual budget to the seriously mentally ill, instead focusing mainly on problems such as mild depression and anxiety. Even after a recent reboot, Thrive is expected to dedicate about a quarter of its budget to serious mental illness.
Shoveling more money into the mental-health system without addressing its manifold deficiencies amounts to a call for “revenue before reform.” Progressives might as well cut the police budget and send taxpayers a rebate.
Helping the hardest cases always takes more than money.
In the case of mental health, the hardest cases are found largely in shelters and jails and on the streets. That’s where we should target our resources, using interventions targeted to the seriously mentally ill. People with mild depression and anxiety don’t need court-ordered treatment programs, such as Kendra’s Law, and inpatient psychiatric hospitalization. But people with schizophrenia sometimes do.
Advocates believe that stripping funds from the police and transferring them to social services takes an enlightened, “upstream” approach to policymaking. But that same prevention-oriented rationale justified ThriveNYC’s focus on mild mental illness instead of serious mental illness. Far too often, going upstream to prevent social problems isn’t enlightened — but simply an excuse to dodge responsibility for our most pressing social challenges.
#DefundthePolice would have us hamstring a vital public service — only to swell the budgets of failed programs already gorged with taxpayer cash.
By Stephen Eide