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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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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