October 21, 2019
Errol Louis: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. Mayor de Blasio announced today that the City will be spending $37 million to address the crisis of the seriously mentally ill among us. This comes as the City conducts a 30-day review of how the City conducts mental health interventions – this coming, of course, in the wake of the murder of four homeless people in Chinatown recently. Joining me now to talk about that and much more, from the Blue Room, inside City Hall is Mayor de Blasio. Welcome Mr. Mayor, good to see you.
Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good evening, Errol.
Louis: I wanted to start by, I guess, trying to capture some of the dimensions of this issue. You are talking about a pilot program in a city where the number of 9-1-1 calls involving the mentally ill has reached nearly 180,000 a year which is close to 500 a day. What was laid out today looks like a tentative step in that direction, but a very small scale one?
Mayor: Well, Errol, as you know, this is a substantial program in terms of the amount of money that’s being put into it – tens of millions of dollars to begin a whole different approach to how our police engage folks with mental health challenges. The task force that came up with this you know, these folks put months of work into trying to figure out what would be new approaches that would work. What they came back with, you know, a simple way of summarizing it, is a lot more of the specialists being available to our officers. Folks who are going to go and work on some of the folks who are identified most often as having mental health issues and proactively engage them. You know, a variety of things that we think we are going to change the ways the interaction with police and folks with mental health challenges go. It’s a beginning and it’s a lot or resources being put in. And no one is saying this will solve every problem but it’s going to be a very substantial beginning.
And I think it is important to note that part of why we are seeing the number of calls that we are seeing today is that there is much more willingness in families to acknowledge mental health challenges. And we’ve all been working hard to destigmatize the issue of mental health, to get people comfortable coming out in the open and seeking help. This is one of the reasons you see more calls and it’s important that we come up with new ways for addressing them. One of the other things that you see in the actions that this task force recommended was diverting some calls that now going to 9-1-1 that really could be handled by NYC Well. So that’s 8-8-8-NYC-WELL, is our overall help line for folks with mental health challenges. Some calls are going through 9-1-1 that could be handled by the trained counselors at NYC Well. So that’s another action that’s being taken to try and get the right help to the right people at the right time.
Louis: When you talk about that, who would triage such calls? If a call comes in about somebody who seems to be at risk to themselves or to someone else, something has gone seriously wrong, such that people feel like they have to call, who would make the decisions about whether it goes to NYC Well versus the NYPD?
Mayor: Look this is something that’s just beginning but I think the common sense answer would be the same people who make life and death decisions all the time about how to share information, the folks who receive those 9-1-1 calls, who are trained to handle that and anything that requires the presence of the NYPD, of course would get it. But we know that people call 9-1-1, in many cases, who don’t life threatening situations. And it’s important that those calls get handled wherever they best should be but it does not always require a police response. And so getting handle on, there are some people right away who call 9-1-1 frequently, even where this is not a dire threat. One of the ideas that came out of this task force was to deal with those folks separately because you know, the City knows who a lot of those folks are, to proactively go and engage them and try to address their issues so they are not constant callers to 9-1-1 because of a problem that’s actually not a 9-1-1 problem. So I think we can effectively train the folks who handle 9-1-1 calls on those differences and make sure people get the right kind of attention.
Louis: I saw, The City was reporting this, that Deputy Commissioner Herman said that about ten percent of all mental health related calls to 9-1-1 involve only 275 people which struck me as a sort of a stunning number, 18,000 calls a year about 275 people. Maybe we should work backwards from those 275 people, right?
Mayor: That’s exactly what this task force said. You are exactly right on the money. That in fact it is stunning but it stands to reason, you are talking about someone with a mental health issue and one version of that might be constantly calling you know, seeking help, or trying to get attention on their concern or just acting out, whatever they are dealing with. But you are right, we can identify those people, get them help, get them away from that constant reliance on 9-1-1 where they really don’t belong and that’s one of the things that this task force called for and is now going to be put into effect.
So there’s a lot of different pieces here. This came out of trying to really rethink, since there’s a growing openness about mental health and the fact that we have to deal with it differently than we did in the past. And there are times where NYPD officers must be there to protect peoples’ safety. There are other situations that may not require NYPD. There are some situations where it is particularly important to have mental health professionals on the scene. All these different permutations, this is exactly what the task force looked at. And that point you raised Errol, that small number of people making all those 9-1-1 calls, now they are going to get addressed proactively and hopefully we can find solutions to their concerns that take them away from 9-1-1 altogether.
Louis: You mentioned de-stigmatizing and I know there’s been a little bit of public commentary already about the notion that one of the recommendations was to stop calling them EDP calls, emotionally disturbed persons calls. You know, my dad was on the job in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s, they used to call them psycho calls. Whether you call it that or EDPs or now I guess the new term would be mental health calls, does it really make that much difference?
Mayor: It’s part of all the change that is going on, thankfully in our society and what we have been trying to do over these last six years to destigmatize. Look, even when you hear a phrase like emotionally disturbed person or EDP, a lot of us here at City Hall, use that short hand because we are used to it from our work with the NYPD. In a way it misses what’s going on with that person. It’s a human being with a mental health problem. And every single mental health problem is treatable. And we’ve got to get to a situation of not thinking people are crazy and not thinking it’s a character flaw and all the other stigmas, all the other problems that most of us are brought up with. And we’ve got to start seeing it as a human being with a problem that we want to get to as quickly as possible well before it’s ever a situation that requires the police.
This is why the role of NYC Well is so important. I want the day to come soon when every family in New York City, if one of their family members has a mental health challenge, they instinctively call 8-8-8-NYC-WELL and seek help from a trained counselor. And get that family member to whatever kind of treatment they need which NYC Well can arrange for people and deal with these problems on the front end as much as possible before God forbid it ever ends up being a situation where the police need to be involved. We got a lot of work to do to get to that day. But I do think, Errol, it’s important to begin with an acknowledgement and every family has to deal with this. My own family has had to deal with this. Every family has had mental health issues and substance misuse issues in their family. I would literally think almost everyone unfortunately has had some experience with this is one way or another. We have got to first see that this is a human reality and that the sooner we acknowledge it and the sooner we get help, the more chance that we don’t end up in a dire situation later on.
Louis: Okay, we will talk some more about this another time. We will take a short break, stand by, Mr. Mayor. We will be right back.
Errol: Welcome back to Inside City Hall. I’m joined once again by Mayor de Blasio who is speaking to us from the Blue Room inside City Hall. And Mr. Mayor, I wanted to ask you about – well, I guess I should say congratulations. The big vote to close Rikers which you’ve been working on for such a long time passed, and passed somewhat comfortably in the City Council. But now of course comes the hard part. And, you know, given that we are a city where it can take years and years and years and considerable cost overruns to get a library branch built, to get municipal furniture inside of a park built, what assurances can you give us that this very ambitious plan to build facilities in three of the five boroughs will actually happen?
Mayor: Errol, it’s a perfectly fair question because we’ve all seen those things you referred to. I think the difference here is that this is front and center. This is something that is a major, major priority for my administration, for the City Council, for the people of New York City. I think a consensus developed in this city that Rikers Island was so out of any kind of a connection to our values and what we feel as New Yorkers, what we think is fair, what we think is right. It was so broken. It had to go. And I think that energy, that focus is going to continue as these facilities are now built.
You know, to the point you made – and thank you for acknowledging this was something I worked on with my team for years. A lot of people predicted we could not win this vote. And you know the history of elected bodies making decisions on controversial matters. This was a really heavy lift but from the beginning we focused on winning the votes in the City Council and holding them with great, great team work with Speaker Johnson and the four members whose districts they were in. So, for all the folks who were naysaying whether this could happen, you know, I think something extraordinary just happened, a vote – a really tough vote – and it won the day with a strong, strong majority.
And I think that strong majority is part of why I’m confident about the timeline here. We are now going to get immediately to work on the design for the four facilities, on tearing down the facilities that need to be taken out as part of the process. This is all going to move very aggressively. We all put a timeline on ourselves and by law for the closure of Rikers. I think there’s going to be a lot of energy to get this done and I think the level of scrutiny, the level of focus is going to help ensure that it stays on its timeline.
Louis: There – we know there was a lot of last minute bargaining, that there were people, especially some of the members in the districts where these facilities are located, who wanted some things, some assurances in between – in exchange. You can call them community investments, you can call it deal making, you can call it whatever you want but all of the deal makers or most of the deal makers are going to leave office along with you at the end of 2021. What happens after that?
Mayor: Well, I think, you know, you’re talking about a matter of law. I mean let’s be clear. This vote authorizes the new facilities and requires the closing of the old facility. I don’t know what could be clearer. So, by the time I leave office, you know, you’re going to have seen a lot of work begun on these new facilities and again the money is in the budget. I mean there’s just literally nothing missing from the equation. The votes happened. The money is in the budget. The timeline is laid out. The size of the facilities are laid out. It’s going to move forward and remember, Errol, I always – people have raised all sorts of critiques, that’s natural. But I always ask people to think about the kind of counterfactual.
So, if anyone doesn’t like this going forward, then they’re going to have to be in favor of staying on Rikers Island and I think you could – you saw from the debate we just had and the fact that we had such a commanding majority in the City Council, there’s not an appetite in this city for continuing all the mistakes, decades and decades of presence – 85 years of presence on Rikers Island.
So, I don’t see future leaders able to say, let’s just go back there. That doesn’t make any sense. And you’ve got the buy-in now to move forward in the places where they really should be – near the courthouses, where people can come and visit their family members. And new facilities that are focused on redemption, keeping the folks in prison – excuse me, folks in jail safe, keeping our officers safe. I don’t see anyone turning that back.
Louis: And are you open to the idea that [inaudible] the reforms that are going to start taking effect next year and others that are sort of in the works might in fact push down the jail population quicker than anybody imagined? Is it conceivable to you that the improvements could run ahead of the aggressive schedule that’s already been approved by the City Council and make one or more of the new facilities unnecessary?
Mayor: No, I’m not – you asked the question very precisely. I want to answer with equal precision. Could we find that the reduction in the population of people in jail goes faster than what we predicted? Conceivably, yes, but remember there have been plenty of critics saying you know, ‘we have concerns about is there going to be enough space going forward if it goes the other way.’ This specific plan, it’s very balanced. It’s four facilities in the four boroughs where the vast majority of the jail population is near the four court houses, and each facility is basically the same number of beds.
So, that’s a balanced formula that should not be disrupted. I am very hopeful about real steady decrease in the number of people in jail even in this last six years in the administration about half as many people went through the doors of our jail system last year as five years earlier. That’s amazing, that’s ending mass incarceration. This is very, very good for this city. But we don’t know what each and every year will bring and I think we have the right number based on every projection we have now. And if it turns out there’s extra beds that go unused, well that will be a blessing. But I think this plan has a lot of momentum and it’s what we should stick with now.
Louis: Okay, a couple of items of old business. In Queens there are traffic safety advocates who are meeting over the weekend saying that the plan to finish Queens Boulevard and make it safer with protected bikeways, pedestrian walkways, and so forth is moving slowly and that the last phase of [inaudible] Boulevard to Union Turnpike has still not been completed. They are urging your administration to move a little faster.
Mayor: It will be completed next year for sure. Queens Boulevard, as you know, when we took on Vision Zero at the beginning of my administration, one of the first focal points was Queens Boulevard. It used to be called the Boulevard of Death. We got really used to that in the city. That’s how bad things were. Thank God we’ve seen a huge turnaround on Queens Boulevard. Getting the last piece done really matters. I’ve said that consistently. It will be finished next year. Period.
Louis: Okay, and some other old business – your Chancellor came on the show and said that the Success Academies that are asking for a middle school in Southeast Queens to accommodate a lot of the students that they have coming up that the space was there and that they’d get a school. They are buying ads in the newspaper. They are holding rallies. They are saying that the Department of Education is dragging its feet.
Mayor: I think we’ve seen, for a long time, a couple of different things. One – figuring out how to do a co-location, and make it work for all the different schools in the same campus. It is not a matter of snapping your fingers. It has to be done right and that’s a district that happens to have some space issues. It’s – there’s a lot of buildings that are highly utilized. So, making sure we get it right and that it’s a livable situation for all the schools involved is really important.
The other thing that is not given enough attention is, you know, State law says that any charter organization like that one, if we don’t have a space that works for them or what they want doesn’t fit our criteria, they get money to go rent a space. That’s State law. So, we’re moving as quickly as we can to accommodate them appropriately according to what we have and what we think are the right rules. If for some reason they don’t want that, they can always take the money available to them and go rent their own space. But the Chancellor was clear that we intend to get this fixed.
Louis: Are you suggesting that they do that? If they think they [inaudible] you guys won’t be ready by next year?
Mayor: I think that it’s – all I’m saying is it’s constantly left out of the discussion because of the political nature of the discussion that you know when the DOE says to these schools we’re going to have a space for you, they live by it. When they say we don’t have a space, that sometimes the reality that some of the charter networks don’t want to hear but it’s according to our rules and our standards. And then they are automatically guaranteed the rental money. So, sometimes it seems to me there’s a certain artificiality here. It’s like we’re being very clear, DOE is being very clear, they will have a space. If the charter organization prefers a different option, they can go rent something of their own.
Louis: Okay, we’ll leave it there for now and we’ll see you next week. Thank you very much, Mr. Mayor.
Mayor: Thank you, Errol.