By declaring a killer ‘mentally ill,’ officials dodge all accountability


Another day, another “random” murder of a New York woman who has the gall to show her face in public. This week, it was 61-year-old EMT Alison Russo-Elling, a 9/11 veteran months away from retirement.

The city’s narrative, inevitably, is going to be that the killer was “mentally ill.” In the midst of a pandemic of mentally ill madmen killing women, we need far better accountability from the people in charge of keeping the “untreated mentally ill” from killing us.

First of all, let’s not be so quick to exonerate the alleged culprit, Peter Zisopoulos, on grounds that he “needs help” or is a sign of the “failed system,” just like we did with Simon Martial, who shoved Michelle Go under a train in January.

Martial was found unfit to stand trial — but he had some idea of what he was doing: choosing a smaller victim, timing his shove to be fatal, and fleeing the scene and later turning himself in.

Similarly, Zisopoulos had some idea of what he was doing. He took a steak knife out with him on his deadly walk around Astoria last Thursday. He picked a person in uniform. Prosecutors can’t dismiss the possibility that this was a targeted assassination, just like the 2014 Christmastime double-murder of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on patrol. Zisopoulos may have held a grudge against EMTs, for taking him to the hospital previously as an “emotionally disturbed person.”

If so, this isn’t mental illness; it’s revenge.

She was stabbed with a steak knife.
Russo-Elling was on her way to get food alone when she was killed.
FDNY/Twitter

And he picked a woman, walking by herself — at least the fourth time this year a female has been deliberately murdered by a crazed stranger. Zisopoulos, like Martial, also fled the scene. Besides Go, there was Christina Yuna Lee in February, stabbed by a man who followed her home on the Lower East Side, and Dorothy Clarke-Rozier, also in February, fatally stabbed on a Brooklyn street walking to work. In pre-2020 New York, just one such murder annually would have been unusual.

But OK, let’s say this is all severe mental illness, and not misogyny. Where’s the accountability on prevention?

In 2018, EMTs took Zisopoulos to the city-run Elmhurst Hospital, for making threats against another vulnerable group, Asians. What happened? Did the hospital stabilize him? Did it create a treatment plan? Did he stick to it? Has he had any further interactions with the mental-health system?

Nothing was done about the threats.
EMTs took Zisopoulos to Elmhurst Hospital, for making threats against Asians.
BRIGITTE STELZER

If cops had arrested Zisopoulos for his anti-Asian threats, we’d know the outcome. There would be a court record. Commanders must answer to NYPD brass, and precinct leaders must appear each month at community meetings, and must explain why a particular nuisance hasn’t been fixed.

This public pressure works. Cops have (mostly) stopped the loud overnight parties in Washington Square Park. Even Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg has to answer for his decisions to release violent defendants, time after time, to watch their criminal behavior escalate. We might not like what’s going on, but at least we know what’s going on.

The public-health system for preventing dangerous mentally ill people from behaving violently is, by contrast, a black box.

Many blame the state's new bail reform laws.
Under Alvin Bragg, crime has surged in the city.
AP

In Martial’s case, the Times found that “some hospitals in the city were refusing to even admit patients they find too disruptive.” Imagine if the Department of Correction said that it couldn’t admit some people to jail because they were too disruptive (solves the solitary-confinement problem, at least).

The mayor doesn’t require mental-health and social-services chiefs to appear at monthly precinct meetings and explain why we have more knife-wielding maniacs walking the streets.

Maybe we need a Compstat for what happens when a potentially violent person, or an already violent person, disappears into the mental-health system (anonymized, of course). What’s the recidivism rate? Are psychiatrists any good at this? Who’s responsible when someone is deemed well enough for release, and then attacks someone?

The city’s contracting for mental-health services increased by two-thirds over three years, from $268 million in 2019 to $435 million in 2022. Is it working? Is it too much or not enough?

We have no idea. Conveniently for progressive pols, transferring a violent person out of the criminal-justice system and into the mental-health system does accomplish one thing: getting rid of all accountability, both for the perpetrator and for themselves.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.



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