Times Square Maniac Latest Sign of City's Mental-Health Failure
New York failed Alyssa Elsman, the 18-year-old Michigan woman killed last Thursday in the Times Square horror that also critically injured four people. But that failure was wrapped up in another: The city’s inability to deal with its severely mentally ill.
Early Thursday, New Yorkers first feared the noontime car wreck was a terrorist attack along the lines of recent radical-Islamist assaults in London, Stockholm, Berlin and Nice.
An hour later, the report was only slightly less grim, and far more usual: a supposedly drunk driver who veered off his path into a crowd.
The emerging facts show it was likely neither of the two.
So far, police haven’t found that the perpetrator, 26-year-old Richard Rojas, styled himself an ISIS lone wolf or had connections to terrorists. But neither do witness accounts — and video — show a man who is disoriented or confused.
Police accounts and Rojas’ history, too, are revealing that this wasn’t a “normal” car crash. Police say Rojas rambled during his interview. He claimed his intent was suicide-by-cop, and said of the pedestrians, “I wanted to kill them.”
Rojas also has an arrest history that indicates mental problems. Yes, he’s been arrested for drunk or drugged driving twice — which led many people to believe on Thursday that this was a repeat offense.
But just a week before the massacre, Rojas was arrested in The Bronx for for menacing and weapons possession. In the incident, he accused a notary of “trying to steal my identity” — a sign of delusion. Court officials let him go with a minor harassment plea.
That’s despite past out-of-state arrests and a military history that indicate similar episodes: a 2012 arrest for “attacking a cabdriver and threatening to kill cops,” The Post reported.
Friends, too, indicate serious mental problems: paranoia, nightmares, “talking crazy,” acting “like he wasn’t with all his five senses” and medicating himself with drink (and perhaps drugs).
The New York Times reported Friday that friends also thought he “needed psychiatric help.”
Rojas wouldn’t be New York’s first such dangerous mentally ill criminal. Recall Frederick Young, the “murmuring madman” with a long history of disturbing criminal behavior who slashed a tourist in Bryant Park two years ago?
Or Daniel St. Hubert, free to kill 6-year-old Prince Joshua Avitto in a Brooklyn elevator in 2014 despite serving three years in prison for attacking his mother.
Or Andrew Goldstein, who pushed Kendra Webdale to her death under a subway train in 1999. Webdale’s killing spurred Albany to create “Kendra’s Law,” which enables courts to force people into supervised treatment while living at home.
As my colleague Stephen Eide has found, forced outpatient regimens — applied to 14,618 people statewide since 1999, and 2,067 people last year in New York City alone — have reduced hospitalization among those affected by 60 percent and imprisonment by 70 percent.
But, as Eide notes, most people who get treatment under Kendra’s Law do so just after being discharged from hospitals. New York judges, prison officials, prosecutors and defense attorneys must do better at getting people into hospitals or other involuntary treatment.
There’s a difference between someone menacing a victim because the victim owes him money and crimes that stem from apparent delusions, like the one police arrested Rojas for the week before his car attack.
And the city should do better in helping family and friends to help someone who seems, as Rojas did, to be out of his mind.
Rojas lived with his mother, who, like many relatives of the severely mentally ill, may not have known how to help him. And hospitals and jails are too quick to discharge people who can’t live safely in society.
If Rojas were a common criminal or drunk driver — or even a terrorist — the solutions would be simpler: For example, arrest people for weapons possession and they won’t be able to rob people, as New York has demonstrated for nearly 30 years.
Design streets to protect pedestrians, and bad drivers won’t be able to take as many lives, as New York has also proven. Metal bollards stopped Rojas from driving his car off a sidewalk and onto Times Square’s pedestrian plaza, where he could have killed more.
The city ought to strengthen such barriers, and add them to crowded sidewalks: Terrorism remains a threat. But severe mental illness is harder to fix than crime and bad drivers — and Thursday shows the cost of failure.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post
This piece originally appeared in New York Post