The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill

Shereese Francis was in mental distress. After police arrived, she was dead.

The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill
Illustration By Lloyd Miller.

On the evening of March 15, Shauna Francis called 311 looking for some information. She wanted to call an ambulance for her 30-year-old sister, Shereese, but wasn't impressed by the quality of care at Queens General, the nearest hospital. Shauna wanted to know if she could ask the ambulance to take Shereese to a Long Island hospital.

The 311 operator told Shauna she would have to take that question up with the EMTs when they arrived and asked Shauna about the nature of the problem. Shauna explained that Shereese, a person with schizophrenia whose illness was well-controlled by her medication, had been refusing to take her meds for some time, and the family wanted doctors at a hospital to help persuade her to resume taking them.

The operator transferred Shauna to a 911 dispatcher, who listened to Shauna's story and promised to send someone over. Shauna hung up and traveled the short distance from her home to the small, single-story house in Rochdale where her mother lived with Shereese.

Courtesy of the Francis family
The Francis family: Shereese, Eleen, George, and Shauna. Shereese was killed in March after four police officers forced her face-down into a mattress.
Courtesy of the Francis family
The Francis family: Shereese, Eleen, George, and Shauna. Shereese was killed in March after four police officers forced her face-down into a mattress.

As she drew up to the driveway, she saw a police cruiser had already arrived, and four officers were approaching the front door. That wasn't unusual: On other occasions when the family had called an ambulance for Shereese, police often arrived along with the EMTs. Assuming an ambulance was probably on its way, Shauna led the officers into the house, where her mother, Eleen, explained that Shereese was in her bedroom in the basement.

What happened in that basement after the police went downstairs to talk to Shereese isn't fully known. Shauna and Eleen saw and heard some of what transpired, but not everything. Citing an ongoing internal investigation, the police department isn't commenting.

Police logs record the four officers arriving at the Francis home at 10:20 that night. Shauna and Eleen saw the officers wrestle Shereese onto a bed, all four of them piling onto her as they pressed her facedown into the mattress and handcuffed her. Within 20 minutes of the police arriving, Shereese Francis had stopped breathing, and Emergency Services personnel were attempting to revive her.

When Shereese was finally taken to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center at 12:25 a.m., she was pronounced dead. Hospital staff told the family she likely had been dead for at least 90 minutes before she arrived. The death certificate signed by the medical examiner listed Shereese's death as a homicide and cited the immediate cause of death as "compression of trunk during agitated violent behavior (schizophrenia) while prone on bed and attempted restraint by police officers."

Shereese's father, George Francis, is more succinct. "The bottom line is, they come there and kill her," he says. 

The death of Shereese Francis has rekindled a decades-long debate over the NYPD's treatment of the mentally ill. As the first responders to all sorts of emergency calls, police officers are on the front line for just about every social problem in the city, and mental illness is no exception. The department estimates that it handles nearly 100,000 calls for "Emotionally Disturbed Persons" every year—hundreds a day. Every few years, one of those calls goes so badly that somebody dies.

Determining who bears responsibility for those deaths and whether and how they can be prevented isn't always easy. But with a growing international consensus on the best practices for police interactions with the mentally ill—practices the NYPD has so far resisted adopting—the story of how Shereese Francis died once again raises the question of whether the NYPD is doing everything it can to train its officers on how to do the delicate work of serving New Yorkers with mental illness.

Francis Grace Day Care and Learning Center stands in a two-story white stucco building on a stretch of Merrick Boulevard in Queens surrounded by used-car lots, a Quick Lube, and roti restaurants. The front is covered with gaily painted balloons, rainbows, and alphabet blocks. It's a hot summer day when I meet the Francis family there to talk about what happened to Shereese, and the air-conditioning isn't keeping up, so we drive down the block in George Francis's Mercedes minivan to another location he's renovating. It's cooler there, and settling around a folding table, the family members begin to tell their story.

George Francis came to Queens in 1985 from Kingston, Jamaica, and soon brought his family—Eleen and their two young daughters, Shauna and Shereese—to join him. Along with other members of the family, they began building a child care center. The enterprise was successful, and soon they were running a small constellation of centers. In 2000, The New York Times included their business in a trend story about 24-hour child care centers targeted at shift workers with off-hour needs.

Shereese and her sister helped with the business and worked hard at school, her parents say. After high school, Shereese spent two years at Nassau Community College, where she studied to be a physical therapist.

"She was a very happy person, a very loving, spiritual person," her sister says. "Everybody loved her. She was always very happy, very concerned about everyone."

In college, Shereese became quieter, depressed and withdrawn. "She began seeing things," her father says. Eventually, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and prescribed Risperdal, an antipsychotic.

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