On a recent July afternoon in The Bronx, 19-year-old Franklin Mesa went up to Nathaniel Rivers, 35, who had just parked his car, and allegedly stabbed him to death in front of his wife.
Mesa’s family members described him as schizophrenic. Police said he was arrested last year for punching somebody, twice, in the face. And a neighbor told The Post that he was often the source of “hostile, aggressive” situations, including preventing a woman from getting on the bus.
And yet it appears that nobody did anything to see if Mesa was taking his psychiatric medicine, which his sister said he had been on since he was 15.
Rivers’ horrifying death rekindles a debate over the violent mentally ill in New York. Between 2015 and 2018, 911 calls reporting emotionally disturbed people have jumped by nearly 25% in New York City, while the number of homeless people with serious mental illness rose by the same percent.
At bottom, the blame for this trend rests with progressive groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society, which have sought to de-fund psychiatry, de-police New York, and de-stigmatize untreated mental illness. They are expert at persuading courts to release mentally ill people in the name of freedom. They convince their clients to push for maximal freedom rather than for the care that’s best for them.
Consider the case of Martial Simon, a 61 year-old mentally ill homeless man, who early this year confessed to pushing 40 year-old Michelle Go onto the subway tracks, killing her instantly. Simon, who the Legal Aid Society defended in court, is now at a psychiatric facility where he will remain until he’s found mentally fit.
The fact is, he should never have been released.
Simon had already been under the supervision of New York’s correctional authority until last August for two cases of armed robbery in 2017. His sister wanted him permanently hospitalized.
“I remember begging one of the hospitals, ‘Let him stay,’” she told The Post, “because once he’s out, he didn’t want to take medication, and it was the medication that kept him going.”
A homeless advocate who saw Simon’s medical records reports that Simon even told a psychiatrist in 2017 that it was only a matter of time before he pushed a woman onto the subway tracks.
“People with mental illness who harm other people usually do it because of paranoid delusions in which they fear for their own lives,” Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke told me. “They become convinced, based on psychotic delusions, that they need to kill to protect. What looks on the outside like pure aggression is often a deeply disturbed attempt to protect.”
The seriously mentally ill, who also often suffer from drug addiction and homelessness, are some of the most difficult sick people to treat, which is why even many very caring medical professionals and social workers avoid them.
This is partly because the ACLU and other progressive groups have sought to weaken Kendra’s Law, claiming it is authoritarian and racist, while also seeking to prevent police officers from even responding to 911 calls relating to the mentally ill.
Kendra’s Law, passed by New York legislators in 1999, is named after a writer who was killed after being pushed onto the subway tracks by a mentally ill man who had stopped taking his medications. The law allows courts to order medical treatment of the mentally ill without hospitalization, which is known as “assisted outpatient treatment,” and at a lower standard than the “imminent dangerousness” criteria for in-patient commitment in New York.
Assisted outpatient treatment is aided by injectable antipsychotic medicines, which last a full month. They are tailor-made for delusional schizophrenics who convince themselves that they are not sick and stop taking their daily medicines. Most conservatives and liberals agree Kendra’s Law worked to prevent violence by the mentally ill. It allows for action to be taken before a mentally ill person, like Mesa or Simon, hurts somebody.
And yet there was an 8% decline in the number of individuals treated under Kendra’s Law between 2017 and 2021.
In my reporting for my book, “San Fransicko,” an attorney for the ACLU told me that her organization believes the mentally ill are too impaired to be held accountable for breaking the law, but not impaired enough to justify the same kind of treatment we provide to other people suffering mental disabilities, such as dementia.
In short, the ACLU effectively believes that it’s better to accept the deaths of people like Nathaniel Rivers and Michelle Go than to deprive the civil liberties of potentially violent mentally ill people like Franklin Mesa and Martial Simon by mandating they take once-a-month injections. In 2018, just 3,158 patients were under active Kendra’s Law court orders in New York state, even though around 8,000 could have qualified, according to advocacy group Mental Illness Policy Org.
Mayor Eric Adams has made fighting crime his signature concern, and recently hired Kendra’s Law author, Brian Stettin, to work for him. They will need to increase psychiatric beds by at last 4,000, in order to meet demand.
There is federal Medicaid funding for this, but New York state must apply for a waiver known as the “IMD Exclusion.” Naturally, ACLU and other progressive groups hotly oppose New York state doing so.
But Mayor Adams need not wait for Governor Kathy Hochul to act. He should order New York police and doctors in New York hospitals to interpret existing laws more broadly, since the law allows recognizing hospital care as “essential to [the] person’s welfare” and “other conduct demonstrating that the person is dangerous to [self].”
No doubt that the ACLU will sue him but, as Stettin notes, “It would be a fight well worth having, and the city would prevail.”
Michael Shellenberger is the best-selling author of “San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.”