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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32 comments
padraigh
padraigh

How sad that this had to happen.

mgilliam1
mgilliam1

Our collective mistreatment of mentally ill people is infuriating. We stigmatize them which causes them to not get the medical help they need. It's a terrible cycle.http://www.blackwiththeblues.com/

FluffySlippers
FluffySlippers

This is a very sad situation. Of course police are not prepared for all the different ways manic behaviour presents itself. The whole system is dysfunctional. Mental Healthcare is so fragmented with no support systems for caregivers. Sufferers are marginalized and stigmatized. This happened in March but the medication was stopped in November? Behaviour changed as soon as medication stopped? Why was there no follow up in 5 months except for 2 visits from a social worker? The procedure to access mental health care is probably as much to blame as police or parents. The parents did not seem to communicate with the daughter before the arrival of help. Could they have gone down to her room before the police took action, been honest with her about what was happening and stayed by her side? Having multiple uniformed officers invade your space, would be extremely chaotic and frightening to anyone, regardless of their mental state. Very sad. Either the police need to be educated (with access to immediate medical backup) or Institutions need to be re-opened, even if for short-term stays and especially for medication issues and caregiver support.

redQueen
redQueen

this article should have included the killing of Kenneth Chamberlain in White Plains.

tallison46
tallison46

I have to agree with Yobee. Someone gave the police bad information to work with and the outcome is just about what you would expect...

neenameena1
neenameena1

@villagevoice Remember Eleanor Bumpurs? 1984 the police used violence to handle a person w/mental illness; 28 yrs later w/no change.

TheQuietCar
TheQuietCar

@villagevoice in other news; sky is blue. Fire burns.

Yobee
Yobee

This is entirely the family's fault. Instead of calling an ambulance, which they would have been billed for, they called the police, for free escort and transportation to a hospital. If they had taken responsibility for their family member, they would have called an ambulance first. EMTs could have brought in the police if they thought it was necessary and would have been on-scene to advise the cops on handling the subject and would have been right there once the medical emergency began.

 

Cheap, lazy hypocrites trying to scam the city out of big bank and escape responsibility for the death of the young woman...

Bobbi Goddard
Bobbi Goddard

This was an informative and provocative article. I am interested in learning more about Canadian policing approaches to EDP calls.

Anon
Anon

Sorry to be the grammar police, but it's judgment, not judgement.

Robert la Bohème
Robert la Bohème

Like in 1989 when I went into the Emergency Room at St. Vincents with chest pains. They thought it was a heart attack and kept me there 7 hours, ignoring me in a curtained off partitioned. When I asked if there was some other place they could recommend, the cop nearby said, "You want better service, go back to California."

HAROLDAMAIO
HAROLDAMAIO

The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill

 

 I prefer to put it, your poor judgment with the words, "the" mentally ill. Such abtstractions do no one any good, and may well be behind negative actions.

LTigani
LTigani

@MXGMCopWatch killer judgement.

Cassidy
Cassidy

The NYPD ought to adopt international standards of recognized best practices in dealing with the mentally ill.

 

That said, I don't think the city should be held liable for the few unfortunate cases of fatality.  I think people ought to be reasonable: have the department adopt better training and protocols of engagement, sure, but unless there is some kind of demonstrable case of widespread negligence, NOT A PENNY IN CITY DOLLARS TO THE FAMILIES of the mentally ill.  It is not anyone's fault -- not theirs, not the city's, no one's -- that their relatives are nuts and wind up dead! 

JessicaClackum
JessicaClackum

@villagevoice Very tragic. The police never should have been involved.

JessicaClackum
JessicaClackum

@villagevoice I know it was routine for NYPD to accompany the EMTs but this was a "medical" not "violent" situation, 911 op knew that...

SuppahFly
SuppahFly

@Police_Dispatch Why dies this feed criticize the police more then commend?

sshanika1
sshanika1

 @Yobee

 Once there is a call to 911 to have a mentally or emotionally disturbed hospitalized, EMS and Police are dispatched.  It's protocol.

ijustcant
ijustcant

 @Yobee

Stop acting like you give a good Goddamn about the "young woman" and admit to using this story as an opportunity to spew your vitriolic views on  people who you perceive (or judge) to be draining the city of New York with their incessant need for governement handouts.  Where did you type this comment?  From your High-rise condo in Greenpoint or something?  Who raised you to be such a high-falutin',  insensitive pig?  Michael Bloomberg?  Mitt Romney?  Who?  This is a loss that this family will have to grapple with for the rest of their lives.   They lost their schizophrenic daughter.  She's been sick for years. Did you wonder at all how stressful a situation like this might be for everyone involved?   To call them "cheap" and "lazy" is absolutely disgusting.  You gave yourself away with the word, "entirely".  It's "entirely" the family's fault?  You're heartless.  And look around you. New York City IS a big fucking bank you dick.

spence147
spence147

 @Yobee You certainly win the award for the most ill-informed response that I have ever read online.

 

redQueen
redQueen

 @Yobee

 "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 operator transferred Shauna to a 911 dispatcher, who listened to Shauna's story and promised to send someone over."

 

I don't understand how you get "cheap, lazy hypocrites" etc

redQueen
redQueen

No. The sister called 311 and was directed to call 911.

mbrachman
mbrachman

 @Anon Actually, that's the spelling police, to be technical. You're correct that 'judgment' is the preferred spelling, but 'judgement' is an accepted alternate spelling.

txguy
txguy

 @Cassidy I agree.  This story is tragic, no doubt.  But I got the impression that the EMTs had arrived with police before.  Since the family called for EMTs, it is likely the EMTs called for backup knowing this patient could be trouble.

 

The police use violence to subdue a mentally ill patient because the patient is violently resisting.  Furthermore, since the patient is not rational, the patient may not respond to commands and can exhibit extraordinary strength as they will struggle to the point of hurting themselves.  Ask anyone who has worked with autistic adults.  Additional training is helpful, but the police aren't being paid to put themselves into the hospital.

Brotha
Brotha

 @SmithBurger The Second Amendment gives the PEOPLE the right to bear arms. We should be arming our brothers and sisters more and shooting back at NYPD. The disarmmament campaign in NY is a deception campaign to weaken the PEOPLE's rights and be helpless at the mercy of the NYPD. Don't believe the lie. NYPD is the enemy. These churches ministers are weak. Oh well a brother or sister is shot dead by NYPD.

Yobee
Yobee

 @redQueen I get 'cheap' because they brought in the police for free instead of an ambulance for which they'd be charged. I get 'lazy' because they used free city services to deal with their own relative, I get 'hypocrites' because they are now trying to profit from their own bad judgement calls...

solex10
solex10

 @txguy Excuse me, but the police are supposed to be able to handle people better that that. The mentally ill should be treated with a lot more compassion; instead, they get tazered, shot, or chokeholded-and all with the complicity of sheeple like yourself who believe in the old 'Officer Friendly' bullshit.  With 'understanding' and 'compassionate' people like you, it's no wonder the mentally ill have problems in society getting treated, the police get away with misbehavior, and North American society becomes more authoritarian.

solex10
solex10

 @Yobee You are certainly a big, prize fool. Don't you know that you're not supposed to blame the victim? The lady, and her family, are all victims in this.

 

Please keep you nasty invective to your diary.

txguy
txguy

 @solex10 You seem to know an awful lot about somebody you've never met.  Ad hominem aside, you seem to have ignored everything I said.  Yes, it would be nice if these incidents never arose, but how is someone "supposed" to do the impossible?  She was fighting off four police officers.  What would you have suggested?

 
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