The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill

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

The medication worked well. When she took it, Shereese was functional and outgoing. She attended a Catholic Charities outpatient program that offered psychotherapy, which helped her manage her illness. But the Risperdal also "made her fat," in her father's words, a side effect about which Shereese was painfully self-conscious.

Beginning in November, Shereese stopped taking her medication, at first with minimal effect. "The first month was fine," Eleen remembers. But by November, things were getting worse. Shereese spent entire days in her bed, under the covers, refusing to talk to anybody. The family became increasingly concerned. Social workers from Shereese's program came by a couple of times to check on her. "She wasn't that bad at the time," Eleen says. "She spoke to them."

It got worse. "She stopped eating, she wasn't sleeping," Eleen says. "She spent her days combing her hair. Combing her hair and putting on makeup."

Eleen, Shauna, and George Francis spoke out in a press conference in April after Shereese’s death.
James Thilman/Gothamist
Eleen, Shauna, and George Francis spoke out in a press conference in April after Shereese’s death.

On the morning of March 15, things seemed even worse. "She hadn't slept the night before," Eleen says. "I went down there to check on her, to see if she wanted to sleep." Abruptly, Eleen pauses her retelling, dissolving into silent tears. Shauna, sitting next to her, takes up the story.

"I got back from school around 8, and my mother told me, 'I've never seen her act this way,'" Shauna says. "'She accused me of taking her makeup, and then she was pulling my hair.' Mom said, 'I think we need to take her to the hospital before anything gets any worse.'"

Shauna went back to her own house, nearby, had her conversation with the 311 operator and the 911 dispatcher, and returned to her mother's house, where the police were just arriving. After explaining the situation, Shauna and Eleen followed the police down into the basement. Shereese was in her bedroom, but the police spoke to her through the closed door.

"They were basically telling her, 'We're going to take you to the hospital,'" Shauna says. Shereese wasn't having it. "She was arguing with them," Shauna says. "She was like: 'What are you doing here? You're not taking me anywhere!'"

It wasn't clear that Shereese actually understood the situation. "It didn't seem like she knew they were the police," Shauna says. "She was saying, 'I'm going to arrest you,' just all kinds of crazy things to them."

After a few minutes, Shereese opened the door and tried to push through the crowd, down the basement hallway, and up the stairs.

"The police officers say, 'Do not let her go,'" Shauna says. "That's when all the tackling began."

Police managed to keep Shereese from making it to the stairs and instead pushed her into another bedroom that opened off the hallway.

"One of the officers initially said, 'Why don't you just use the Taser?'" Shauna says. "I said, but they didn't hear me, 'That isn't necessary.'" As the police piled into the bedroom, Shauna got a partial glimpse of the struggle. She thought she saw one of the officers making hand movements as though he might have been hitting Shereese, but she couldn't be sure.

"Then they got her onto the bed," she says. "All four of them were on top of her. They were trying to get handcuffs on her."

Shauna heard one of the police officers cursing at Shereese. "'Give me your effing hand! Give me your effing hand!' I was like, 'What kind of police officers are these?'"

Shereese managed to resist for a while, Shauna says. "At first, she was fighting them off, fighting them off, fighting them off. But then I didn't hear her anymore, and she wasn't moving."

Recognizing that something wasn't right, the police took the handcuffs off and moved Shereese to the floor, Shauna says.

Sixteen or 17 minutes after the police showed up, the EMTs arrived and rushed downstairs. The police were keeping the family out, and the basement door was locked.

Eleen, back upstairs at this point, heard one of the EMTs run upstairs and talk into the radio, and mention something about arrest. "She thought that meant they wanted to arrest her," Shauna says. "Later, we realized they were talking about cardiac arrest."

Shauna's mother-in-law, who had now arrived, tried to poke her head in and see what was going on. "She looked at her and said, 'She looks like she's dead!' They said: 'Oh, no, no. Get outside.'" Eleen and Shauna's mother-in-law circled around and tried to peer in a window but were again shooed away. For what felt like a long time—more than 45 minutes, they estimate—the family, worrying and making phone calls, waited anxiously on the lawn while the police and EMTs worked on Shereese in the basement.

"I didn't know what to think," Shauna says. "I was just wondering, why is she down there so long? What's going on?"

At one point, a sergeant came upstairs with what seemed like good news. "He said: 'We've got a pulse! But there are no guarantees,'" Shauna remembers. It was still a "long time after that" before she saw Shereese being taken out of the basement on a stretcher. The ambulance was parked across the street, but for some reason, the police and EMTs took her out a stairway that led to the backyard.

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