The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill

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

"I think maybe they wanted to avoid us," Eleen says. The family asked to ride with Shereese in the ambulance, something they'd done on previous occasions, but were told they couldn't. Shauna and Eleen got ready to drive to the hospital themselves, but as they were heading out the door, more recently arrived police, detectives in plainclothes, said they wanted to take recorded statements on what had happened. The women gave short statements and explained what had happened, trying to reconstruct the timeline. Finally, they were allowed to follow Shereese to the hospital. When they arrived, a nurse directed them into a room.

"They told us she was dead, and there was nothing they could have done," Shauna says. Nurses showed her mother-in-law the readout from Shereese's EKG from the time she arrived at the hospital. It was flat from the beginning.

In the following days, the family's shock and grief began to settle into anger. Shereese didn't have to die that night.

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.

"They cut short the girl's life," George Francis says. "She had a lot to live for. She had a schizophrenic problem, but if she took her medication, she come right back, you know?"

"These police officers weren't trained to handle this," Shauna says. "Who restrains someone on a soft surface, facedown? Who would do that?"

Eleen agrees.

"Usually, when you talk to her, it may take a long time, but if you keep talking to her, she'll listen," she says. "The police officers in the past, they all talked to her. It seemed like they knew what they were doing."

In the days afterward, police investigators kept calling, wanting to talk more about what had happened, but George Francis was tired of talking to police without a lawyer. The family hired Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer with experience suing the NYPD.

"We need justice for Shereese," says George Francis, his Jamaican phrasing becoming more pronounced as he becomes more upset. "New York City got to pay for all our pain and suffering and compensate for our loss of life. Money won't bring her back, but at least it would serve justice. That mean somebody got to pay. Somebody got to be accountable."

Shereese Francis was hardly the first person with mental illness killed by police in New York City. Throughout the decades, there have been numerous such incidents, each provoking—to greater and lesser degrees—flurries of media attention, public dismay, and calls to reevaluate the NYPD's approach to such encounters.

The first landmark incident came in 1984. Police broke down the door of 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs in an effort to evict her from public housing and hospitalize her for what a psychiatrist sent by the city deemed to be psychosis. Inside the apartment was Bumpurs, 275 pounds, naked, holding a 10-inch kitchen knife. Carrying shields and a Y-shaped restraining bar, police attempted to subdue Bumpurs, but in the scuffle, one of the officers was knocked to the ground. As Bumpurs stood over him with the knife, Officer Stephen Sullivan fired two shots from his 12-gauge shotgun. The first struck her hand. The second went into her chest and killed her.

Following the incident, Sullivan was indicted on manslaughter charges and acquitted. The city ultimately paid the Bumpurs family $200,000 to settle a civil suit, and the NYPD changed its guidelines to require a senior officer to be on hand before police confront an emotionally disturbed person. Police also began to carry less lethal weapons, including Tasers.

In 1998, Kevin Cerbelli, a 30-year-old who had been in and out of mental institutions, walked into the 110th Precinct in Queens carrying a screwdriver and a knife and attempted to stab an officer in the back. Police surrounded him and attempted to subdue Cerbelli with a Taser but were unsuccessful, and after he continued to lunge at officers, he was shot seven times.

In 1999, Gidone Busch, a bipolar 31-year-old who lived in Borough Park, was shot to death by police responding to a complaint that he was threatening a local boy with a hammer. Busch, an observant Jew, was in his apartment when six police officers confronted him, but he backed out onto the sidewalk, where police used pepper spray on him. Police accounts afterward differed on whether Busch had first struck them with the hammer, a religious item used in prayer, but there's no disagreement that after the pepper spray, Busch became more upset, striking out with the hammer. Four officers fired their guns, killing Busch.

In the space of a week in 2007, police officers shot and killed two emotionally disturbed men in Brooklyn. Khiel Coppin, 18, was holding a hairbrush under his shirt like a gun when police killed him in Bedford-Stuyvesant. David Kostovski, 29, was brandishing a broken bottle at police when he was shot in East New York.

In 2008, when police responded to a call from the mother of 35-year-old Iman Morales, who wasn't answering his front door. When police arrived at the Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment, Morales, naked, retreated out the window and onto a ledge 10 feet above the sidewalk. Police called for an inflatable air bag to place on the sidewalk under Morales but didn't wait for it to arrive before shooting him with a Taser. Morales went stiff, fell headfirst onto the sidewalk, and died. The entire episode was captured on video and prompted another round of public debate over the use of Tasers and police protocols in dealing with emotionally disturbed people.

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