Soul-searching after random street attacks by mentally ill

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2007, 12:00am

New York

On October 6, a man randomly slashed an Indian chef in the face and neck and stabbed a 67-year-old psychologist on Manhattan's daytime streets.

More attacks were prevented by an off-duty police officer who witnessed the second attack, rushed out from a footpath restaurant where he and his girlfriend were having breakfast and shot the man, who was wielding a series of knives. The man and his two victims were sent to hospital, where they are recovering.

The attacker was identified as Lee Coleman, a father of three who is schizophrenic and has bipolar disorder who had stopped taking his medicine. The scene is way too familiar to New Yorkers who otherwise live in a city that is much safer than it has been for many years. In the past two years, at least eight similar incidents have occurred in which mentally ill people have randomly attacked members of the public.

Some of the survivors are still fighting the trauma. One of them, Michael Steinberg, 65, whose stomach was cut open by a man with a power saw on a subway platform last year, talked to the Daily News after the recent incident. 'I thought, 'Here we go again', but what can you do?' he said. Mr Steinberg posed a question that elected officials and commentators have pondered over many times. How exactly are people like Coleman allowed to wander the streets until it is too late and what can be done to fix the problem?

Psychiatric patients used to be dragged off the street and housed in medical facilities. The US patient rights movement in the 1960s helped change this by placing more patients in community-based programmes or home care by their own choice. Improvements in medications that could keep patients stable for longer periods vindicate the approach, but often when patients feel better they stop taking their medicine and become a public safety time bomb.

The latest safeguard is Kendra's law, which New York state passed in 1999 after a young playwright was pushed to her death in front of a subway train by a schizophrenic man. The law allows courts to grant involuntary treatment for psychotic people with a record of violence.

According to a state report in 2005, the law works well. In its first five years, almost 4,000 people received involuntary treatments ordered by courts. Homelessness, hospital admission, arrests and incarceration among these people fell about 70 per cent to more than 80 per cent as a result. But some say the law is not the perfect answer.

'Kendra's law hasn't stopped some major attacks on people, including the recent case,' said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College.

He said when the mentally ill were left on the street, the police were put in an awkward position. 'The police are in the worst position to fix the problem because it's a medical problem, not a law enforcement problem.'

Professor O'Donnell called on the government to form a blue-ribbon investigation committee to study how to stop such tragedies.

'What we need to do is to use all the knowledge we have to intercept people early in a humane and decent way.'

Jonathan Stanley, of the non-profit-making Treatment Advocacy Centre, agreed the policy should be changed, but so the police could be more involved. He pointed out that an uncle of Coleman had noticed his nephew's odd behaviour and called the police hours before the attack. He was told nothing could be done as only those who had a violent history and were an immediate threat to themselves or others could be forced into a hospital. And Coleman's record was clean.

The debate will continue. Governor Eliot Spitzer said he planned to take up Professor O'Donnell's suggestion.