Dangers of Normalizing the Abnormal

In my first 90 days as the CEO of CASES, I have been inspired by the work our teams are doing around the city to serve those young and old impacted by the criminal legal system. I feel hopeful when I see the great work of CASES teams across our youth and young adult services, our alternatives to bail and to incarceration, and our clinic and intensive mobile treatment programs. This past year, our teams supported nearly 10,000 New Yorkers who might otherwise be abandoned or trapped in years-long cycles of jail and prison.  

At the same time, I am disheartened by so much of the local and national rhetoric around mental illness and crime. The lazy a priori assumptions made about bail reform and hasty generalizations made about people living with mental illness in this city seem to be dangerously drifting toward consensus. The not-so-subtle local and national push to “toughen” and “crackdown” on the post-pandemic symptoms of much broader societal ailments reminds me of the “war-on-crime” narratives that gripped the New York City of my youth. These narratives, uninformed by the people being labeled or the communities they came from, both precipitated and normalized mass incarceration and its devastating impact on communities of Color and Black and Brown New Yorkers. 

I am reminded of a seemingly innocuous encounter I had with the police many years ago as a teenager in my Fort Greene Brooklyn neighborhood. I had just stepped out of one of the local bodegas into the hot summer sun. I was 15 and would soon be on the precipice of making some terrible, life-altering choices. But on that sunny summer day in 1986, I was just another young Black boy living in the Walt Whitman housing projects. As I crossed the street, a car with two white men heading in my direction began to slow down.  

We all knew NYPD detectives, or “DTs” as we called them, when they rolled through the neighborhood. They stuck out as they prowled around in their unmarked Dodge Diplomats wearing their frumpy suits. I could see the detective on the passenger side staring at me intently. As the car pulled to a stop in front of me, I briefly considered running. Though I hadn’t committed any crime, I knew that didn’t matter. My friends and I had been hemmed against so many walls and searched so many times, it felt odd when it didn’t happen.    

The detective on the passenger side leaned his head out of the window, smiled, and asked me if I “wanted to make 10 bucks.” Before I could answer, he explained that all I had do was come down to the precinct with them and “stand in” a lineup for a “few minutes.” They needed Black and Brown teens to fill the myriad of lineups that were then being conducted for the countless Black and Brown teenage suspects in the city’s overflowing holding pens. Honestly, I was relieved because the proposition meant that they did not really want and more importantly did not really see me. They just needed another Black body. I politely declined and quickly walked away.   

This was such a normal everyday thing in my neighborhood. It was 1980s Brooklyn, with poor communities of Color defined as “war zones” and considered “ground zero” for the crack epidemic. But it was also home for me and my friends long before terms like “super predator” and “wilding” entered the American lexicon as dog whistles for the brutalization of a generation of Black and Brown boys. I never told my mother about this interaction, but I wonder what her response would have been had I told her. I certainly know what my response would be if my precious son or daughters were propositioned by the police in such a way today. 

Early in December, Mayor Adams announced a policy directive calling for the involuntary commitment of New Yorkers with serious mental illnesses who are living on the streets. This directive was consistent in spirit with the Mayor’s previously announced “Neighborhood Safety Teams” emphasizing increased policing of Black and Brown communities heavily impacted by the pandemic’s health and economic fallout. Both directives center police and law enforcement as the frontline response to individual and community trauma and crisis. 

These political announcements—implicitly calling for the intensive policing of Black and Brown youth in their communities and the sweeping away of people with serious mental illness—and the concurrent media sensationalism create narratives that are having a real impact on people’s lives. Every life plays out in some form of community that exists in some broader context shaped by societal conditions and circumstances. Oversimplified, soundbite “solutions” that grab headlines or cater to the lowest common human instincts do a great disservice to the real, deep work that requires time and long-term investment in people and their communities.  

CASES programs implementing proven, evidence-based solutions include intensive youth outreach and engagement models that reduce recidivism along with mobile treatment teams long recognized as the gold standard in supporting recovery and wellness among people living with serious mental illnesses who experience homelessness. These models center relationship and trust built with clients through multiyear engagement and support available 24/7/365 from teams that feature clinical and youth development experts along with mentors and peer specialists with relevant lived experience.  

Benchmarks and goals in proven programs like CASES intensive mobile treatment are defined in close and continuous conversations with participants and their loved ones, because we know that real solutions cannot be crafted without the input of the people impacted. This type of real work is not always neat, and progress is almost never linear given the depth and complexity of the problems. That 15-year-old I was in Fort Greene in the summer of 1986 was months away from some of the worst mistakes of his life—mistakes that irreparably harmed people and his community. But he was also a fulfillment of the exact trajectory that the racially charged “tough-on-crime” narratives had made to seem normal and expected from him and his friends. The deep work—long-term, proven solutions that refuse to indulge soundbites and that insist on healing and hope—are the only real way forward.