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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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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