The NYPD's Poor Judgment With the Mentally Ill

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

Instead, the NYPD points to its Emergency Services Unit, an elite division of the force that receives extra training on interacting with people in psychiatric distress.

The problem with relying on the ESUs, mental-health advocates say, is twofold. "The ESU is used for lots of different things, from terrorist attacks to missing persons to people in psychiatric distress," Parish says. "Skills that might make someone effective for the ESU might not be the same skills that would serve well on an EDP call."

More fundamentally, as specialized units, ESU teams are rarely the first police at an EDP call. That means the officers on the scene in the critical first five minutes of contact with a person in emotional distress often haven't received any specialized training at all beyond what they got at the academy.

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.

To the NYPD's credit, it recently overhauled that training, tapping mental-health advocate Fred Levine to help rewrite Chapter 23 of the recruit's guide in the mid 2000s. Levine, who's a believer in the policing principles of the Memphis Model, incorporated many of its basic tactical guidelines in his rewrite. He cautioned against sudden actions, threats, and rushing the situation.

"Officers should take great care to assure that they do not restrain or confine EDP's in ways that may hurt—or even kill—them," the police student's guide reads. "Never confine EDP's—or anybody else—in facedown, prone positions for longer than it takes to handcuff them."

But while some of the training materials have been updated, advocates say changing the textbook isn't enough. NYPD recruits only get 18 hours of training on mental-health issues. Follow-up in-service tactical-refresher trainings offered to veteran police are also relatively short and are often tacked onto the end of a shift.

Even the best training in the world won't help if officers don't feel they have the time to talk through a situation with someone in psychiatric crisis.

"It takes oversight," Parish says. "A commander in a precinct who expects every call to be responded to very quickly and then get back out on the street, that doesn't give officers much time for empathy."

After a spate of Daily News stories and pressure from the City Council turned up the pressure on the NYPD to re-examine its mental-health policies in 2008, it revived the Link Committee, a group of mental-health professionals and advocates who had been consulting with the police on policy issues before a lack of departmental interest led the committee to founder for years.

Parish and Levine attended the first meetings of the revived committee with optimism but were soon frustrated by the messages they were getting from the department.

"They wanted to limit the scope of the conversation to reviewing the training," Parish says. "Anything beyond that, they weren't really interested."

Ultimately, the Link Committee stopped meeting, without releasing any reports or recommendations, leaving members pessimistic about the prospects for change.

"At this point, I think getting change may require a new mayor and a new police commissioner who may be more open to listening," Parish says.

Experts on law enforcement and mental health agree that it's unfair to put all the blame on police when an encounter with a mentally ill person goes wrong. "This is an issue that goes all the way through our society," says Cochran of the Memphis police. "Everyone has a stake in how we treat each other, it takes all of our involvement to change those relationships, and when something goes wrong like that, it reflects something being wrong all across the board. This isn't just about fixing the training. Getting it right requires dedication and cooperation and conversation from the whole community."

But by refusing to take part in the kind of wider discussion that could bring reforms, Levine says, the NYPD is becoming an obstacle to broader civic solutions.

"The NYPD shouldn't bear sole responsibility for every single tragedy as if they had the magic to prevent it," he says. "But their failure to aggressively participate—within their department, across agency lines, and outside the city where expertise clearly exists—that's something I'll always blame them for until they change. And I'll blame them for the next tragedy because of that failure."

It's a sentiment shared by the Francis family. Since Shereese died, they say, many people have told them stories of similar—if less fatal—episodes in which the police mishandled a person in emotional distress.

"That's why it's necessary for this to be out there," George Francis says. "So that they put a new system in place to prevent this from happening to other people. They will be more careful when they know that they will be brought to account."

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