It wasn’t supposed to happen again.
On Jan. 3, 1999, 32-year-old Kendra Webdale was pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway train. Her killer, Andrew Goldstein, was diagnosed as schizophrenic, but was not taking his medication.
He remains in prison, and later that year the state Legislature passed Kendra’s Law, which increased the state’s and mental health professionals’ ability to supervise those who are mentally ill and believed to be dangerous to themselves and others, even to the point of forcing patients to take their medication — when it is enforced.
But in the last year alone, NYPD officers William Fair and Philp White were attacked on April 8 in the Bronx by a man whose mother told them he was off his medications and was not taking court-ordered treatment.
Nine days later, a man with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder drove a knife into the brain of Officer Eder Loor. The 28-year-old cop was responding to a 911 call from the man’s mother.
On Dec. 4, Elmhurst resident Ki Suk Han, 58, was thrown in front of a Q train at the 49th Street subway station in Manhattan after an altercation with a man with a long arrest record. His accused killer, Naeem Davis, a homeless man, allegedly said voices in his head told him to push the man.
On Dec. 29, Sunando Sen, 46, of Corona, was pushed under a subway train to his death from a No. 7 train platform in Sunnyside. His accused killer has a history of mental illness and assaultive behavior.
Webdale’s parents lobbied the legislature tirelessly to pass the first Kendra’s Law.
Now state Sen. Catherine Young (R-Olean) and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello) are introducing bills this session that they hope will close loopholes, the foremost of which would be to make Kendra’s Law permanent, rather than having it periodically sunset as it has since 1999.
Their companion bills would:
• Increase the maximum length of court supervision of treatment from the current six months to one year;
• Require that the appropriate authorities pick up supervision of such cases when a patient moves to a new county within the state;
• Require evaluations from mental health institutions and prisons after those with mental illness are released so that they do not fall through the cracks and;
• Require the state’s Office of Mental Health to prepare educational pamphlets explaining the process for family members looking to get help for relatives with mental illness.
“I was an emergency room nurse,” Gunther said Monday in a telephone interview with the Queens Chronicle. “I have seen the effects of this up close ... We have to close those loopholes. And we can’t let this law sunset.”
The bill failed to make it out of the Assembly’s Mental Health Committee last year.
The Chronicle was able to contact all but one of the members of the state Senate and Assembly this past week to discuss their support for the bills.
All said changes need to be made to protect members of the public and the mentally ill themselves from cracks in the system.
Those responding varied in their levels of support, from David Weprin (D- Little Neck) who said he would look to become a cosponsor, to state Sen. Michael Gianaris, who would like to see the measure more closely tied to gun control initiatives.
All said they would reread the bills in their respective houses before committing for or against specific pieces of legislation.
Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Corona) said everyone wants to make adjustments, particularly in the wake of high profile incidents such as the subway killings or mass shootings.
“But it’s a complex situation,” he said.
Aubrey is chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Corrections, which oversees, among other entities, the state’s massive prison system.
“We administer more mental health services than anyone else in the state,” Aubrey said in a telephone interview. “We’ve tried to improve what is done inside the Corrections Department. Everyone wants treatment provided and improved. We want better referrals, because sooner or later, most of these people will be coming home.
“But it’s an imperfect system,” he said.
Aubrey said cost is a large concern, with care of the mentally ill who are incarcerated often proving a tough sell when asking the taxpayers for money.
“If we don’t have the resources to provide the treatment, we can’t complete treatment. We can’t always identify it early and provide early treatment.
“The issue is a lot larger than just keeping people locked up,” he said. “You can pass laws to make people feel safe, but you also have to make sure you have the capacity for doing what the law says ... Everyone agrees we need better tools ... And the cost is enormous.”
Among those responding, a spokesman for Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D-Forest Hills) said he is supportive of the changes.
So too is Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (D-Maspeth), whose spokesman, Mike Armstrong, said she voted for the original Kendra’s Law.
“People who suffer from mental illness and their communities should have the peace of mind knowing that Kendra’s Law has been made permanent,” said Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) in a statement from her office. “The proposed legislation addresses the concerns of treatment providers, patients, law enforcement agents and community members.”
She said additional safeguards, awareness and training will make people safer.
“No one should have to fear for life on their morning commute,” she said.
Neither bill addresses the possibility of making civil commitment, or civil confinement, easier. The term refers to the forcible incarceration of those who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.
Gianaris said he would not comment on a speculative or hypothetical proposal, and all legislators reached by the Chronicle said any such move would have to be properly crafted to protect not only the public, but the rights of the people facing forced confinement.
But some said if done properly, with due deference to civil rights, it might be workable.
“You don’t want to put anyone in a facility unless they absolutely need it,” said Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven). “If someone needs the help, maybe that’s a way to get it to them quicker.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said he would like to see some tightening of Kendra’s Law, and will support it if the wording of the Senate bill is appropriate.
Like Miller, he said that at least in theory, there could be mechanisms in place for involuntary committal.
“In some of these cases, I’ve been amazed that the accused have been released to the general public in the first place,” he said. “And remember some of these patients are not just a danger to the public, but to themselves. In some cases, they need that protection.”
State Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said he would support some changes to the current laws.
The senator said he voted for extending Kendra’s Law, but agrees that there is a need to improve it.
“Whether Sen. Young’s bill, an amended version or a different bill, is taken up remains to be seen,” Peralta said in a statement issued by his office. “But we need to get something done and in the current climate, with the governor’s leadership, we will.”
Peralta has his own bill involving mental health and crime.
He would like to require the courts to strip people of guns and gun permits if they are involuntarily committed to an institution, forced into outpatient treatment, or acquitted of a crime or deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial by reason of mental disease or defect.
He said the bill, crafted in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, has passed the Assembly each of the last four years with bipartisan support.
He believes the current climate will allow movement in the Senate this year.
Peralta said forced confinement for those who fail to follow treatment or take medications always can be an option. But, like Miller, Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) and others, he said it must be done with great care.
“As long as the final product respected the constitutional rights of the individual and reflected the expert judgement of a medical professional,” he said.