Appalling events in Brooklyn last week demonstrate the joint failure of criminal justice and mental illness policy in New York City. On Friday afternoon, Dewayne Hawkes, a panhandler with multiple outstanding warrants, entered a nail salon in Brownsville and began urinating on the floor. Salon workers appealed for help to two nearby police officers.
While NYPD officer Lesly Lafontant—a 53-year-old veteran cop of Haitian descent—arrested Hawkes, Kwesi Ashun, a local man selling t-shirts on the sidewalk, entered the salon and began attacking the officers. Lafontant’s partner attempted to stun Ashun with a Taser, but this didn’t stop him; Ashun then hit Lafontant in the head with a metal chair. Lafontant pulled his sidearm and shot the assailant six times, killing him. Officer Lafontant suffered severe head injuries—he has since emerged from a medically induced coma. “He has a long road ahead of him,” a source told the New York Post.
Ashun, 33, was a diagnosed schizophrenic with bipolar disorder. He had a long history of attacking police, including serious incidents in 2004 and 2008, in one of which he apparently slashed a cop across the face with a knife. In recent days, Ashun’s family saw him “spiraling” and called the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for help. The city sent a mobile crisis team to interview Ashun, but they determined that he did not pose a danger to himself or others. They advised Ashun’s sister to call 911 if he became violent.
This episode illustrates the city’s failed policies when treating people with serious mental illness. New York State has the nation’s most robust legal mechanisms for compelling mentally ill people to stay in compliance with treatment while maintaining their lives in the community. Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), known in New York as Kendra’s Law, has been shown to reduce incidences of violence, use of drugs and alcohol, and interactions with the police among its clients—roughly 95 percent of whom have been institutionalized at some point in their lives.
While the state has steadily increased the number of people under AOT-related court supervision, the city has drastically underutilized Kendra’s Law—especially under Mayor Bill de Blasio. In fact, the total number of people under court order in the city has declined since 2016, as the mayor has channeled resources into his Thrive NYC mental-wellness initiative, which addresses the everyday discontentment of ordinary people, rather than the acute problems of seriously mentally ill people who cycle in and out of hospitals and jail.
Ama Bartley, Ashun’s sister, reports that she spent 40 minutes on the phone explaining to crisis professionals at the Department of Health that she was concerned that her brother would hurt someone. “I gave them the complete background,” she said. “We are all very distraught because as a family we tried to follow protocol. We really tried to help him.”
That the city dismissed a cry for help from people who obviously knew what they were talking about—regarding a man with a mental-illness-related violent criminal history—indicates that de Blasio’s approach to the problem is a dismal failure. Ashun was a textbook candidate for AOT; he should have been brought under court supervision and compelled to become compliant with his treatment. De Blasio has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on, among other things, training counselors to answer mental health hotlines, but Ashun’s family was advised to call 911 in the event he became violent—the widely criticized directive that results in making police the default option, involving them in an increased number of shootings of violent, mentally ill people this year.
In a coda to this incident, Dewayne Hawkes, the beggar who walked into the nail salon and urinated on the floor, was hit with a slew of charges, including criminal trespass, resisting arrest, and obstructing governmental administration. He was immediately released “under supervision,” a new system of pre-trial release that requires weekly phone calls to a social worker instead of having to raise bail or remain in custody. In theory, Hawkes faces a maximum of three years in prison for his crimes, but, under Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, it is highly unlikely that he will suffer any such penalty. Gonzalez has made a national name for himself as a prosecutor who never opposes parole applications, favors art therapy and museum tours as alternatives to punishment even for relatively serious crimes, and refuses to prosecute farebeating or marijuana arrests.
One wonders what the owners of the Goldmine Nail Salon must be thinking, as the judge and county prosecutor appear to have tacitly approved the use of their place of business as a public bathroom. This disturbing episode is just the latest in a multiplying series of events that seem to suggest that the achievements of hard-fought decades in New York, during which the city became the national leader in urban safety and civic order, are increasingly endangered—especially as the criminal element grows more emboldened in testing limits, as everyday New Yorkers can attest. De Blasio, Gonzalez, and a legion of hard-left advocates have been working for years to undo the city’s legacy on public safety—and the fruits of their efforts are starting to show.
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