The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill

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

Most recently, police officers fired 12 shots at Darrius Kennedy and killed him in the middle of Times Square last Saturday. Police first stopped Kennedy for smoking a joint, but he slipped free and began brandishing a large kitchen knife. Police pepper sprayed Kennedy four times, to little effect. When he lunged at police attempting to cut off his retreat down Seventh Avenue, officers opened fire.

Kennedy, 51, had been sent to Bellevue for a mental evaluation in 2008, but it isn't known if he was diagnosed. Still, Mayor Bloomberg, defending the officers' actions, said Kennedy "must have been mentally deranged" since "taking a knife and going after other people, particularly police officers, isn't something that a sane person would do."

 

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.

New York isn't unique for its steady stream of violent and fatal encounters between the police and what law enforcement calls "emotionally disturbed persons," or EDPs. In their role of keeping the peace and handling situations beyond the capability of ordinary citizens, police have always been called upon to interact with people whose mental illness or emotional breakdowns are causing them to put themselves or others at risk.

That complicated responsibility has only become more difficult in the past half-century, as the institutions that once warehoused the mentally ill have closed in favor of a public health model that relies much more on outpatient treatment, home care, and integration.

In this new era, an increasing share of the responsibility for the mentally ill has fallen on the criminal-justice system. Police are often more likely to be called for help than a health professional. And in many places, poorly integrated services have left officers with few options once they arrive at an EDP call besides doing nothing and making an arrest. The result, research shows, is that prisons have become the new asylums, as more and more mentally ill people find themselves incarcerated.

Cities across the country have their own versions of stories like those of Bumpurs and Cerbelli, stories that show how, in the wrong circumstances, a person with mental illness can be dangerous, forcing police to make split-second decisions about how to protect themselves.  

It happened in Memphis in 1987, when a Memphis Police Department officer shot and killed a mentally ill person. In the outpouring of community dismay that followed, the MPD decided to revisit its policies for handling EDP calls and to reach out to mental-health professionals and to the mentally ill themselves and their families to craft a new strategy.

The result, soon termed the "Memphis Model," was a revolution in policing. It relied heavily on Crisis Intervention Teams, or CITs, composed of police officers who had volunteered to undergo between 40 and 80 hours of extra training in responding to EDP calls. Enough Memphis officers were trained that when an EDP call came through, at any hour and in any part of the city, dispatchers could refer the call to a Crisis Intervention Team.

"The CITs aren't specialized units in the sense that they only respond to one kind of situation," says Major Sam Cochran, who helped develop and implement the model and has since become its chief evangelist. "They're just part of the regular uniform patrol division. They're the first responders, be it a domestic dispute, a bank robbery, or anything else."

The difference is CIT officers have been trained in de-escalation. They know that shouting at people in mental distress doesn't help, that surrounding them, threatening them, and rushing them is almost invariably counterproductive. More than their tactical expertise, Cochran says, CIT officers bring a level of understanding to their policing that makes a critical difference.

"Because they've volunteered and because their training has helped them to see things from the perspective of the someone on the other end of the situation, they've got an empathy that changes the whole situation," Cochran says.

The results of implementing the CIT program in Memphis were dramatic. In the three years before CIT was instituted, mental-health-related calls led to injuries 35 times out of 100,000. In the three years after CIT was in place, that rate dropped to seven injuries in 100,000 calls.

The CIT model was a hit. Over the past 25 years, versions of the program have been adopted by police departments around the world and in almost every state in the nation, from small-town departments to big-city forces including those in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago. It has won plaudits from Amnesty International, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the U.S. Justice Department, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The Council of State Governments has been advocating for the adoption of CIT-like programs across the country.

One consistent exception to the spread of the CIT model has been the New York Police Department. Mental-health advocates have repeatedly pressed the NYPD to consider adopting a similar model, but the NYPD hasn't been interested. The NYPD didn't respond to requests for comment for this story, but mental-health advocates say they're often told by NYPD leadership that the CIT model wouldn't work here.

"They say New York is too big," says Jennifer Parish, director of criminal-justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center's Mental Health Project. "They say the force is so large that training the proportion of officers necessary to make CIT work would be too unwieldy."

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