Rash of violent attacks by people with mental illness underscores need for funding, services
By SHERRY HALBROOK
This was the lead paragraph of a story last month in the NY Daily News:
“The brother of a mentally-ill Queens man wanted for questioning in his mother’s machete death issued a desperate plea for sympathy Friday as authorities continue their search for the former NYPD cop.” (“‘My brother loved his family’: Sibling of ex-NYPD cop sought in mother’s machete death issues plea for sympathy, says brother is mentally ill” – New York Daily News, Feb. 26)
It is a story about a heartbroken family who lost their mother and it is about her son with mental illness who lived with her. They had been trying desperately for more than a year to get more mental health care for him, but it never happened.
“A family member is quoted as saying, “My brother has been suffering from mental illness for many years now, and we have reached out to the mental health department multiple times explaining that we believed our brother was becoming a risk to our mother. I used to tell them, ‘Are you going to wait till he hurts himself or somebody till you do something?’ And their answer was, ‘Unfortunately, that’s the only way.’”
Their tragedy is not isolated. When mentally ill people cannot get the professional care they need, they suffer. Their families suffer. Their friends and employers suffer, and far too often even total strangers in their community suffer too.
This violence is happening in other parts of the state as well. In the small community of Brighton, police are trying to piece together what happened that triggered a deliberate, fatal hit and run. They think the victim may have tried to rob the person who then got into a car and ran him down. In Niagara Falls it is the police, themselves, who are suspect in the death of a mentally ill homeless man whom they were removing from a shelter when he fell or was shoved and received life-ending injuries. The officers are white, the man who died was black.
But in New York City there is no escaping the horrifying stories of violence in the news, sometimes multiple incidents in a day. Many have played out on and around the city’s subway system and have reached the point where people are afraid to ride and the city police and Metropolitan Transit Authority have greatly increased security, at a higher cost to taxpayers just when they can least afford it.
Here are just a sampling of the many violent and sometimes fatal incidents involving mental illness in just the last two months:
• Feb 25, NYC – A 36-year-old man was walking near a federal court house in Manhattan around 6:20 p.m. when he was stabbed in the back with an 8-inch knife. He lost a kidney as a result of the attack and his liver also was damaged. His assailant ran off, but then turned himself in shortly after the attack. Investigators said they believe he is emotionally disturbed. The victim’s wife said, “We are concerned that someone so mentally ill is walking around the city. Why wasn’t he evaluated before this? This could happen to any of us. It could happen to you, your family, anyone. (My husband) is an innocent man who was randomly attacked.” The victim in this case is Asian, and the assailant had just been arrested January 12 for punching another Asian man in the back and throwing him to the ground in Brooklyn.
• Feb 17, NYC – A 46-year-old man began beating a 54-year-old bicyclist with a baseball bat at 5:30 p.m. as the victim was stopped in traffic at the corner of Flatbush and Parkside Aves. A witness implored the assailant to stop the assault and after striking his victim two more times, he left but kept coming back to yell at the victim. The victim was rushed to a hospital in critical condition and had not regained consciousness the next day. Police arrested the assailant, whom they said had been arrested and charged with weapons possession in 2014 while walking a few blocks away with two 15-inch swords dangling from his belt.
• Feb 13, NYC – It was Saturday and four people were randomly stabbed by the same assailant in locations along the A Train line in a 14-hour period. Two of them were found dead. They were all homeless people trying to sleep where they wouldn’t freeze to death. The first victim was sitting in a walker at the 181st Street/Fort Washington Avenue Station. He survived. One of them was sleeping on the stairs inside that same station when he was stabbed four times early that morning. He survived. Two victims were asleep riding the train when they were stabbed to death. At least one of them was a woman. Police arrested a suspect in the stabbing spree that night and he confessed to the murders.
• Jan 17, NYC – A completely naked man appeared on the platform of the Central Park North/110th St. station and began gyrating and dancing next to random people. He pushed a stranger onto the tracks as a train approached. When another man jumped down onto the rails to try to help the shove victim, it enraged the shover, who then also jumped onto the tracks and attacked his original victim and the man who was trying to save him. In the struggle, the shover contacted the electrified third rail and was killed. The other two men were able to get back to the platform without further injury. The shover’s mother told the NY Daily News that if her son had been receiving his psychiatric medications he would have been the kind of person who would try to help someone off the tracks. “He has a mental disability and that’s the issue. My son is not like that, but because he hasn’t had medication in a long time, that’s probably why he was acting like that,” she said. Before the pandemic, he would receive regular visits from a visiting nurse or mental health professionals to make sure he was keeping up with his medications, she said. “Now, with COVID, it’s different, and somebody with a mental illness doesn’t believe they have a mental illness.”
• Jan 11, NYC – It was about 1:30 p.m. on Sunday when a 39-year-old woman jumped off the roof of a 13-story building in Hell’s Kitchen. She was holding her 5-year-old daughter in her arms. They both died, and left the woman’s family and friends profoundly shocked and grieved. A neighbor told The Daily News that the woman had seemed stressed at times. “She didn’t say, ‘I was depressed.’ I could just tell. And there really isn’t mental health support around here,” she said. “I’m so in shock.”
• Jan 5, NYC – A 48-year-old man started punching a 74-year-old stranger at a Bronx subway station, and as he punched him, he screamed, “I just feel like punching someone today!” Police said it was his fifth such attack on strangers since August. He had not been jailed for those attacks. He received desk-issued appearance tickets, or was released without posting bail. The NYC Police Chief told WINS that the city’s failure to provide adequate mental health and homeless services should bear part of the responsibility for this situation. “We try to help people who are mentally ill and homeless. But the situation has to improve when we’re seeing the people getting arrested over and over again and seeing no improvement.”
These are just a few of the violent attacks — many committed in silence against random, unsuspecting victims — that have occurred in New York City in recent weeks and months. They are neither typical criminal behavior, nor are they gang violence. They are neither part of organized crime, nor drug-related.
This violence is being committed by people who may be delusional, and it is hurting people and consuming the time and resources of the MTA, emergency responders and the police. These incidents are undermining trust in public safety, transportation and mental health services. And all of it while the city is still going through massive death, job loss and economic hardship stemming from the pandemic.
Ridership on the MTA is very low, but the number of violent incidents has not dropped proportionately. The MTA asked for 1,000 more transit officers and the city police chief said he would assign 500 more police officers after the random stabbings that killed two and injured two in just 14 hours.
This is what the mother of a 2-year-old child who was punched repeatedly by a female rider on the subway told The Daily News: “I was really scared. (It seems like) nothing is being done. It’s crazy. They are still not taking it seriously. I hope they do one day.”
PEF President Wayne Spence said he wants state legislators and the governor to understand that this is not just about crime. Clearly the root cause is a lack of mental health services for people who can become dangerous without them.
“PEF members who work in the city are among the millions of people there who are experiencing this stress. Much of this fear, pain and suffering could be avoided if the state owned up to meeting the mental health needs of the people,” Spence said. “The money being spent chasing down violent but mentally ill individuals could and should be spent on treating them. Instead, the governor is proposing to cut mental health services. And many legislators are calling for the release of more inmates to parole, releasing defendants without bail, and reduced or no penalties for parolees who violate the terms of their paroles. Some of these measures were put in place last year and more may be coming this year.
“As long as the state ignores the real problem, it will never solve it.”
PEF is fighting back against proposed cuts to mental health services in the Executive Budget. Please visit the Budget Fight Back page on our website to send a letter to your lawmakers opposing closures and bed reductions at OMH.