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by Peter Moskos

November 17, 2019

Violent, mentally ill, on the street: We need to do better than this

My op-ed in the Daily News:

Violent, mentally ill, on the street: We need to do better than this

Police officer Lesly Lafontant emerged form a coma yesterday after a bystander, Kwesi Ashun, somehow deemed it appropriate to beat Lafontant with a metal chair while Lafontant was trying to arrest Dewayne Hawkes, wanted on a warrant, after Hawkes had urinated on the floor on a nail salon.

Ashun was shot and killed by police. His death, not the beating a police officer, received the attention of a City councilwoman, who tweeted, ”My condolences to the victim and their family.” She wasn’t talking about the cop. Later, she talked of working “to bridge the divides.” As if when a man beats a cop nearly to death, the police are partly to blame.

Ashun had a record, including violent dealings with police. He was arrested for slashing a cop in 2004. Recently his family tried to get him help. “My brother was having a mental episode. He was very angry. He was spiraling [out of control]. They said he wasn’t a danger." Eleven days before the recent attack, a city Health Department “mobile crisis team” concluded Ashun wasn’t a threat to himself or others. His sister was told to call 911 but refused: “I wasn’t comfortable with dialing 911 on an ill black man. It was too dangerous. So I didn’t call."

The man who relieved himself in the salon, Dewayne Hawkes? Despite starting this mess, being wanted on a warrant, resisting arrest, and instigating a series of events that led to a cop in a coma and Ashun being killed, he was released on “supervised probation” without bail. What message does that give to police? Or to the people in the nail salon?

All serious mentally ill people need help; only a few are at risk of committing serious violence. The problem is New York City has hundreds of thousands of mentally ill and no way to treat them, particularly against their will. They bounce between hospitals, jails and homeless shelters. Some, like Ashun, end up dead. Others, like Randy Santos, will be in prison for the rest of their lives.

Santos had a long history of violence and strange behavior before being bailed out of Rikers by a bail-reform advocacy group; he now stands accused of having murdered four homeless people, a crime to which he has confessed. Santos’s mother tried to get her son help, but he chose to decline treatment. Perhaps that’s a choice that he shouldn’t have been allowed to make.

It’s actually not that hard to identify some of the people who need help. If your family tries to get you committed, perhaps you need be committed. Sure, we’d want an independent medical or psychiatric determination to make sure it’s not your family that is crazy, but it should be possible.

This part isn’t about bail reform; it’s not about police use of force; it’s not about affordable housing for the homeless. This is about people being hurt because families are unable to get help for their loved ones.

But there is a link to bail and criminal justice reform. And it’s not just a right-wing overreaction. Basically a few hundred people — a few hundred repeat offenders we can red-flag — are going to destroy the worthy gains of reform because we have no system to deal with them.

The plan to close Rikers Island calls for a 60% reduction from current low levels, and some of those 60% will be violent and mentally ill. They need help, and they’re not going to get it.

It behooves reformers and legislators to solve problems that are both inevitable and, if unaddressed, will doom reform efforts. The MTA is currently prohibited from banning repeat criminal offenders from the subway, even the few who push people onto subway tracks. New York judges are legally prohibited from considering a person’s “danger to the public” when setting bail. Public peace of mind requires it.

Current reform will further limit judges’ ability to hold people and, by design, restrict police officers’ authority to arrest. On Jan. 1, almost all misdemeanors and some felonies, including some robberies and burglaries, will become not-detainable offenses. Offenders are to be given an “appearance ticket” that requires pre-trial release.

We know that most of those are detained on low level crimes aren’t mentally ill or violent. But some of them are. If we won’t or can’t detain criminals and treat the violent mentally ill before they do harm, what is Plan B?

The severely mentally ill do not belong in jail. But they also don’t belong on the street. They need help for their sake and for ours.

Moskos, author of “Cop in the Hood,” is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


Unknown said...

Great Post.

I live in Los Angeles, very close to skid row, so it's up close and personal. People are stuck on calling them "homeless" as if that's the source of the problem.

My feeling is that is you could get the addicts, alcoholics and mentally ill people off the streets into some sort of treatment, you could probably find housing for the 20 to 30 people who would still be there.

As in all things, money is no doubt at the root. One can only imagine the cost for that from America's bloated "medical care sysetm". Much easier to talk about a new housing project, because everyone loves a real estate scheme.

Michael East said...


I have not checked in with you in quite a while and thought I would re-visit your site today. This article really hit home with me as I recently accepted a position with Michigan State University Extension to provide Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety training throughout Michigan. The focus of the training is to assist law enforcement with achieving better outcomes from interactions with those suffering from mental illness. As importantly, the training helps LEOs better recognize and respond to mental health crises and thoughts of suicide within themselves and their peer group.

During my career with the Saginaw (MI) Police Department (1994-2014), like most LEOs, I had hundreds of interactions with mentally ill persons, many of which could have ended better. Sadly, I also lost four former co-workers to death by suicide during my career.

Do you have any thoughts, or have you done any research on the LEO suicide rate? Blue H.E.L.P, a Massachusetts-based non-profit, reports officer suicides in 2019 to be 228, up from 172 in 2018, 168 in 2017 and 143 in 2016. Some relate it to the increased scrutiny law enforcement has come under in recent years. Any thoughts on the upward trend, and how it might tie in to the "Ferguson Effect," eroding police morale and subsequent de-policing by some departments?

I always like to hear your views on LEO-related topics such as these.

Michael S. East
Author, Beyond Hope?