Democratic Westchester Legislators Ask Mental Health Commissioner to Investigate Death of Disturbed Man

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 28, 2013

Contact: Tom Staudter | ThomasS@westchesterlegislators.com | 914-995-2819 (office) | 914-419-5221 (cell)

Democratic Legislators Ask Mental Health Commissioner to Investigate Death of Disturbed Man

White Plains, NY – Members of the Democratic caucus of the Westchester County Board of Legislators (BOL) stated today that they will be asking the County’s Department of Community Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Grant Mitchell to investigate the death on May 26 of an emotionally disturbed man, Samuel Cruz, who was shot and killed by a New Rochelle police officer. The legislators are concerned that county residents with mental illnesses may not be getting the care they need since the closing of the County’s four mental health clinics two years ago.

Moreover, the Democratic caucus members are wondering what the status is of the County’s innovative Police Mental Health Program, in which teams of police officers and a mental health professional responded to situations to prevent the escalation of violence. Presently, a diminished version of the program is being run as a call-in option out of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison and St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, with mobile response available Monday through Friday from 9AM to 6PM.

News reports say that Cruz, a 48-year-old New Rochelle resident, was shot after he refused to be subdued by the police officer and moved toward him with a knife. Cruz had a history of mental illness and had recently stopped taking his medication, apparently on the advice of a spiritual adviser.

“I think it important to find out if Mr. Cruz was receiving proper care,” said Legislator Alfreda Williams (D-Greenburgh), chair of the BOL Community Services Committee. “If he was one of the County’s former clients and slipped through the cracks during the transition after the clinics closed, then we should learn why.”

County Executive Rob Astorino closed the County’s four mental health clinics in Mount Kisco, Peekskill, Yonkers and Mount Vernon in June 2011 to save money, though New York State requires that residents suffering from mental illness and receiving treatment at the clinics needed to be properly transitioned. The BOL included money in the 2011 Budget to fund a proper transition for the patients, knowing that it would be unconscionable and pose a public safety risk to simply close the clinics.

In 2010, it was estimated there were over 24,000 visits to the four clinics in total. Open since the 1950s, the County-run clinics were regarded as important havens for those with mental illnesses. Some patients have been on the rolls for decades. About a dozen not-for-profit community organizations around the county have been picking up the patients since the County closed its four clinics, but legislators have worried that County oversight of these services is lacking.

“As we have seen with the County Executive’s cuts to foreclosure prevention, nutrition assistance and child care subsidies, there are real, human consequences to eliminating safety net programs,” said Legislator MaryJane Shimsky (D-Hastings-on-Hudson).

The clinic closings in 2011 were hardly trouble-free. Dr. Mitchell initially didn’t discuss the clinic closings with clinic directors and staff members. Also, over a hundred patients were never transitioned when the clinics closed—even though they were not supposed to be shut until after every last patient had been transitioned. (A note on the door with a phone number to call greeted them when they came for help.) There were also concerns that Spanish-speaking patients would not find clinicians at the new programs who can converse in their language.

“Westchester County recognized several years ago that untreated patients, and those off their medications, can lead to serious, even tragic consequences, which is what led to the development of its groundbreaking Police Mental Health Program,” said BOL Chairman Ken Jenkins (D-Yonkers). “We need to ensure that programs like this remain fully funded and are ready to respond to problems in our communities. Dr. Mitchell needs to update the Board on how this program is now being implemented and start a departmental investigation of whether Mr. Cruz’s death was avoidable from the County’s perspective.”

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=Bazzo 05/29/13

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