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.

"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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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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