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."

npinto@villagevoice.com

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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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