In 1999, when Gidone Busch, an Orthodox Jew with a history of mental illness who was wielding a hammer, was gunned down by police, many protested the conduct of the NYPD. But the voice that went largely unheard by both police and activists was that of the mental health community. Why, they asked, are police still unable to handle a confrontation with the mentally ill?
Three years later, that question has not been answered. A grand jury did not find enough evidence to indict the five officers involved. And last month a jury in a civil trial concluded that the police, who shot an out-of-control Busch 12 times in front of his Borough Park apartment, were within their rights.
At the time of the shooting, during the Giuliani administration, the NYPD refused to release full information to mental health advocates about its training policies or procedures in dealing with the mentally ill. In 1999, it was known, advocates say, that officers received only 12 hours of mental health training.
According to mental health activists, there has been some change under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Though the NYPD did not return calls for this story, advocates say, James Fyfe, a new deputy commissioner of training, has revamped the curriculum for dealing with the mentally ill. This Friday, for the first time, an NYPD mental health advisory board will meet, says Charlotte Fischman, an attorney with Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel, who is involved.
Still, many advocates say the changes are not radical enough to prevent another incident like Gidone Busch’s. “The changes that [Fyfe’s] making, although a step in the right direction, do not change the patrol guide,” says Amanda Masters of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. This refers to the police policy for dealing with the mentally ill in crisis, which hasn’t changed since 1985, says Masters, calling some of the rules “outrageous.”
The fatal police beating of Nathaniel Jones in Cincinnati last week shows how incidents like the the Busch shooting occur. In both cases, police called for units equipped to handle the mentally ill or agitated. Yet in each situation, the private citizen ended up dead before those units could arrive. Most police departments have only small units capable of handling confrontations with the mentally ill and therefore are unable to report to the scene in a timely manner.
In New York, officers still receive between 12 and 16 hours of training to deal with so-called emotionally disturbed people (EDP), according the Urban Justice Center (UJC), which last year did a full review of NYPD mental health procedures. About 10 percent of the 36,000-member force is specially trained to be in the Emergency Services Unit (ESU), which answers less than 10 percent of calls regarding EDPs. Those calls average one every six and a half minutes, according to the Council of State Governments.
Mental health advocates are calling for all police to be fully trained to “de-escalate” confrontations with the mentally ill without having to wait for special units, says Tammy Seltzer, an attorney with the Bazelon Center, which specializes in mental health litigation. Moreover, police need to involve other mental health agencies so that the mentally ill are not continually arrested for petty crimes and jailed rather than hospitalized.
In Busch’s case, when police were called, the complaint was nothing more than creating a public nuisance. Neighbors say he had been playing religious music too loudly and dancing nearly nude on the street. But when police arrived—two different times—he was inside his apartment with a friend. “When a guy from a fraternity urinates behind a party, police come and say, ‘Move along, son.’ Then they come across a person with a mental illness talking to himself, and the response is different,” says Seltzer. That explains a study of arrests in Chicago that shows that the mentally ill are twice as likely to get arrested for the same violation as those judged to be sane.
Craig Acorn of the UJC says his agency has urged the NYPD to partner with mental health and other social service agencies so that in a crisis—if there is time—police can call for help from professionals or even family members. In Cincinnati, police were on the spot with Jones and may not have had time; but in 1999, police had one hour between complaints about Busch, time enough to call a hospital, a mental health agency, or family. Melissa Reuland, a senior research analyst at the Police Executive Research Forum, says that typically either police are untrained concerning who to call, or, more often, there are not enough available mental health resources.
With the training they do have, NYPD officers are told to keep an EDP in a 20-foot safety zone until their supervisors and the ESU arrive, according to Acorn. The new guide apparently teaches more advanced ways of doing so, according to Fischman. On August 30, 1999, police did exactly the opposite with Busch. The second time they arrived at Busch’s apartment, they asked his friend to leave, then forced him out. It was at this point, mental health advocates say, that officers should have contained Busch in the apartment until the ESU arrived. “He was of no danger to anyone,” says Acorn, adding that Busch could have been secluded in the apartment alone with no police if he was acting out. “Had that gone well, he would have gone to a hospital.”
Ultimately, police encircled Busch out on the street. The patrol guide said then, as it does now, that police can shoot when an EDP moves toward them with an object in his hand. “When a person is encircled, there is nowhere for them to move without moving toward someone,” says Masters.
Doris Busch Boskey can recall every fact of her son’s shooting case as if it were on electronic file in her brain. She continually ponders: “What would have happened if they had just waited?” Boskey lived in Long Island and received no call from police. “I heard it on the news at 10 o’clock,” she recalled in a phone interview last week.
There is no guarantee that the NYPD has changed its stance on using nonlethal but dangerous weapons against the mentally ill. Once inside Busch’s apartment, police shot a half-ounce of pepper spray in his eyes, despite two recommendations by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) not to use Mace or other sprays on the mentally ill. Acorn says there are “reams” of evidence that show that Mace worsens agitated states.
Since the Busch case, it has been hard to determine just how bad things are for the mentally ill in their dealings with police. According to the NYPD Public Information Office, the department keeps no record of its encounters with EDPs or the outcomes of their arrests. Even the CCRB doesn’t count the number of complaints filed by the mentally ill.
“We get people saying, ‘An officer put a transmitter in my head.’ We investigate these complaints to the extent that we can,” says CCRB spokesman Ray Patterson. The group tracks the numbers of complaints each year, broken down by many categories, including race and neighborhood.
For now, the staggering number of the mentally ill in prisons is the only yardstick. Human Rights Watch released a report in October estimating that one in six prisoners is mentally ill. Activists warn that Rikers Island has become a default mental health facility. The Human Rights Watch report backs up evidence that those with mental illness are picked up for minor offenses, often when police don’t know what else to do with them, and then kept in the system when they inevitably break prison rules. The organization is calling on Congress to enact legislation that would offer federal funds for programs to prevent the mentally ill from landing in prison and offer better services to those who are incarcerated.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit was filed against the state of New York in October, charging that the mentally ill are unfairly incarcerated for petty crimes and technical violations while they wait for months to receive placement in a tiny number of programs the state offers them.