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Intro. 799 (NYPD Database Of Police Interactions With Emotionally Disturbed Persons)

Statement of the New York Civil Liberties Union presented to The New York City Council Committee on Public Safety regarding Intro. 799, which directs the NYPD to create and maintain a database of information regarding emotionally disturbed persons

The New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”) has serious concerns about Intro. 799 and urges the City Council to withdraw this proposal and to consider alternative approaches to police interactions with emotionally disturbed persons (“EDPs”). This legislation is intended as a response to the findings and recommendations in a June 2008 report published by the New York State/New York City Mental Health-Criminal Justice Panel (“the Panel”).[1] However, the bill’s directive – that the New York City Police Department (“NYPD”) create a database of individuals believed to be EDPs – is inconsistent with the report’s recommendations.


While the legislation is well-intentioned, the NYCLU is concerned that this proposal will do little to improve the effectiveness of the NYPD’s response to incidents involving emotionally disturbed persons. It will more likely compromise and undermine the police response to emergency calls regarding emotionally disturbed persons, and it will certainly compromise the statutory privacy protections afforded EDPs and persons believed to be emotionally disturbed.


I. The proposed NYPD database of emotionally disturbed persons will do little to facilitate an effective police response to incidents involving EDPs

In describing the bill’s legislative intent, Section 1 states that it seeks to “require the creation of a database of pertinent information involving calls of emotionally disturbed people which will be readily accessible to responding police personnel in the event they know the name of the emotionally disturbed person or other identifying information such as the address of the emotionally disturbed person or the location of the incident.”[2]


The proposal is based upon the premise that an individual who makes an emergency call to the NYPD regarding emotionally disturbed persons will provide the names and addresses of such individuals. This is a false premise. It mistakenly assumes that when there is a call to the police regarding an EDP, the caller is able to identify the individual; that the individual has at some point previously given what is his or her real name; and that an EDP who repeatedly engages in potentially harmful behavior does so in a predictable manner that is restricted to the same locations. Because these assumptions are unfounded, Int. 799 is likely to be of minimal assistance and potentially more harmful to the interests of emotionally disturbed persons.


In fact, a summary of news accounts on police interactions with emotionally disturbed persons reveals that many incidents which resulted in injury to the EDP and or other individuals involved police misunderstanding of the alleged “disturbed person” or a flawed or inappropriate police response to the individual.[3] Rather than providing more effective services to the emotionally disturbed, this proposal is more likely to encourage the notion that EDPs are prone to violent behavior and constitute a threat to the general public. Research, however, indicates that emotionally disturbed persons are more likely to be the victims of violence as compared to persons from the general population. What’s more, they may well be arrested for their disability rather than treated for it.[4]

II. The bill is inconsistent with and undermines the objectives of the Panel’s recommendations

The Mental Health–Criminal Justice Panel report recognizes that individuals with mental illnesses face an increased risk of poor treatment outcomes, violence, and involvement with the justice system in New York State.[5] In the effort to provide improved services to this population, the Panel made a number of recommendations, including a pilot program which would require the NYPD to establish database flags for locations [and not individuals] that may trigger the dispatch of the specially trained Emergency Service Unit.[6] In its recommendations, the Panel sought to address the limited capacity for information sharing between the mental health and criminal justice systems. But these recommendations also sought to prevent the release of sensitive private information.

The Panel’s report states that such information sharing “could potentially stigmatize individuals with mental illnesses and lead to punitive criminal justice system responses, raise privacy concerns….”[7] The proposed legislation, however, fails to heed these warnings. Intro. 799 poses a risk of harm to emotionally disturbed persons – the very harms the Panel sought to prevent, including the misidentification of emotionally disturbed persons, the violation of personal privacy, and the further stigmatization of this population. Under this proposal, the database would include, “at a minimum, the name and address of the emotionally disturbed person and the nature of the incident.”[8] Based on this language, the NYPD database could easily encompass the clinical and hospital records of emotionally disturbed persons who come into contact with law enforcement personnel. As a practical matter, this legislation would promote the violation of the State’s medical privacy laws.[9]


III. New best-practice protocols are needed so that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (“DOHMH”) and NYPD can provide effective and coordinated responses to incidents involving EPDs

In June of 2008, seventeen members of the City Council introduced a resolution calling on city agencies (DOHMH and NYPD) to “revaluate their protocols and response to field incidents concerning the apprehension of, restraint of, and use of lethal force against emotionally disturbed persons.”[10] Intro. 799, however, merely creates a database – one whose design is flawed. The NYCLU urges the City Council to develop a more comprehensive best-practice protocol for police interactions with emotionally disturbed persons that is consistent with the Panel’s recommendations.


Pursuant to its findings, the Panel made two recommendations that are essential to promoting public safety and providing EDPs with improved services: the establishment of Mental Health Care Monitoring Teams, which would help coordinate and track the care of high-need clients as a preventative measure, and the improved training of 911 dispatchers so that they may elicit information that would better aid police officers in responding to situations that may involve emotionally disturbed persons. As an additional matter, the City Council should also consider implementing a Crisis Intervention Team model for handling interactions with EDPs. This approach, which has been proven effective in communities throughout the country, would promote the de-escalation of conflict and confusion in emergency situations.


In light of the foregoing, the NYCLU urges the City Council to reconsider Intro. 799.

[1] New York State/New York City Mental Health-Criminal Justice Panel, Report and Recommendations, June 2008,

[2] Intro. 799, Section 1, Declarations of Legislative findings and intent.

[3] Nina Bernstein, Some Question Police Guidelines in Confrontations With the Mentally Ill, New York Times, Sept. 1, 1999,; Trymaine Lee and Christine Hauser, Brooklyn Man Dies After Police use a Taser Gun, New York Times, Sept. 25, 2008,; Robert D. McFadden and Al Baker, Police Kill a Man Armed With a Broken Bottle, New York Times, Nov. 19, 2007,; Michael Wilson, When Mental Illness Meets Police Firepower; Shift in Training for Officers Reflect Lessons of Encounters Gone Awry, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2003,

[4] Eugene O’Donnell, Cops and the Mentally Ill: How Police Can Better Handle Emotionally Disturbed Citizens, July 31, 2008, (According to the National Institute of Justice, a federal agency, once a mentally ill person is arrested for disorderliness, that person is labeled a “criminal” and will likely continue to be arrested when acting out in the future, rather than receive treatment).

[5] New York State/New York City Mental Health – Criminal Justice Panel, supra note 1, at 1.

[6] Id. at 23.

[7] Id. at 22.

[8] Intro. 799, Section 2, proposed amendment to Chapter 1 of title 14 of the administrative code of the city of New York.

[9] New York Mental Health Law §33.13 and Public Health Law §2803-c (Intro. 799 would not fall under MHL §33.13’s “law enforcement agency” exception because a treating psychiatrist or psychologist must determine that a patient or client presents a serious and imminent danger to that person, and the proposal does not specify that this requirement would be satisfied).

[10] Res. 1249-A, Resolution calling on the Mayor, the NYPD, and the NYC DOHMH to continually reevaluate their protocols and response to field incidents concerning the apprehension of, restraint of, and use of lethal force against emotionally disturbed persons (Sponsoring Council Members included: Dickens, Vann, Brewer, Felder, Fidler, James, Koppell, Liu, Mendez, Sanders Jr., Seabrook, Stewart, White Jr., Barron, Foster, Jackson, and Palma).

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