Mayor Adams’ Forcible Removal Order Flies in the Face of Disability Justice

By Sara Lunden, Columbia Law School Public Interest Fellow, & Jordan Berger, Skadden Fellow

On Tuesday, November 29, New York City Mayor Eric Adams directed NYPD, FDNY-EMS, and mobile crisis teams to increase the use of involuntary transport and hospitalization for persons on the streets and subways that they deem to be mentally ill. The directive instructs first responders to use involuntary removal beyond situations likely to result in serious harm, including for people who “[appear] to be mentally ill and [display] an inability to meet basic living needs, even when no recent dangerous act has been observed.” 

Mayor Adams claims that this policy is for the safety and benefit of people with severe and untreated mental illness, since “the very nature of their illnesses keeps them from realizing they need intervention and support.” In reality, this policy dramatically expands police discretion to forcibly remove people from the streets, imbuing the police with the power to determine that someone cannot “meet basic living needs” based solely on their appearance. 

This policy is little more than a return to the “ugly laws” of the late 1800s. “Ugly laws,” enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, targeted the poor, homeless, and disabled by prohibiting begging and restraining “certain unsightly persons” from appearing in streets and public places. It wasn’t so long ago that a New York City institution for people with developmental disabilities was the subject of national attention and a federal lawsuit. The Willowbrook State School in Staten Island was described as a “human warehouse” and a “snake pit,” where Senator Robert Kennedy reported he saw residents “living in filth and dirt, their clothing in rags, in rooms less comfortable and cheerful than the cages in which we put animals in a zoo.” The “ugly laws,” intended to isolate disabled people, endured well into the 1960’s, and helped catalyze the disability rights movement including the push for the Americans with Disabilities Act and movement to community-based care.

Mayor Adams’s removal-of-autonomy approach flies in the face of the progress disability rights advocates have made in recent decades. This policy does nothing to ensure folks with mental illness are receiving services in their communities. Individuals with mental illness need housing, access to prescribers, case management, robust community mental health services, and adequate hospital resources for when a crisis arises, not erasure from the public eye. The degradation of the “ugly laws” and the horrors of Willowbrook State School are important reminders of why we cannot allow policies that have the effect of segregating and forcibly isolating individuals with mental illness. 

Mayor Adams’s focus on the individual reflects a broader belief about the roots of poverty that castigates individuals for circumstances outside of their control. Determining that the people experiencing poverty and mental illness are the problem, and their removal from the public is the solution, fails to address the systemic barriers in housing, employment and lack of community-based physical and mental health supports that cause homelessness and exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness in the first place.

Adams correctly observes that decades of dysfunction cannot be changed overnight. But the steps we take to address this dysfunction matter, and a path that starts by removing autonomy is the wrong path to take.