On March 15, Shereese Francis had a fight with her mother and became increasingly emotionally distraught. Francis, 30, lived at home in Queens, wasn’t taking the medication prescribed for her schizophrenia. Her sister called 311, hoping to get Shereese to a hospital.
Before an ambulance arrived, four police officers responded to the call, arriving at 10:20. They chased Francis through the house, ultimately cornering her in a basement bedroom, forcing her face-down on the bed and applying pressure while they cuffed her.
Within 20 minutes of police arriving, Francis had stopped breathing. A few hours later she was taken to Jamaica Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The Francis family says the police officers did exactly what you shouldn’t do with an agitated and emotionally disturbed person: they escalated the situation. In an affidavit, Shereese’s sister said she saw all four officers pushing down on Shereese, and one of them apparently repeatedly punching her.
Mental health advocates have long warned that the NYPD’s training with respect to handling mentally ill people is woefully lacking — they want New York to join more than 100 other cities in adopting a stronger training program that teaches officers how to de-escalate encounters with the mentally ill.
Before any of those questions can be addressed, though, the Francis family wants a complete accounting of what actually happened on March 15.
But that’s proving more difficult than they anticipated. Six days after Shereese’s death, they filed a Freedom of Information request with the NYPD for relevant police records. The police responded, saying it would take 20 business days to determine whether the Francises’ request would be granted. The Francises appealed the decision, but the NYPD denied their appeal, arguing that the information they were asking for would interfere with an ongoing Internal Affairs Bureau investigation.
That didn’t make any sense to the Francis family, because some of the information they were being told was too sensitive for them to see had already been leaked to the press by the police.
On April 2, the a Wall Street Journal, ran a story on the Francis case, which consisted almost entirely of statements by an unnamed police source, pooh-poohing any suggestion that the police might be responsible for Francis’s death. In some passages, the anonymous police source invokes NYPD reports that the Francis family hasn’t been allowed to see:
“Neither Ms. Francis’s mother or sister, the only two witnesses to the incident, are recorded in police reports as having told investigators they saw Ms. Francis being punched or struck, the law-enforcement official said.”
The article also included statements supposedly made by paramedics interviewed with police officials and reported the unnamed police source “said a doctor who treated Ms. Francis reported finding no visible signs of trauma.”
None of that information, not even the confidential medical information the police were sharing with the media, was made available to the Francis family. Eventually, they managed to get a copy of the death certificate — not form the police, but from a funeral home. That document found that Francis died from “Compression of Trunk.”
“This is part of a larger pattern we’re seeing with the NYPD,” says the Francises’ lawyer, Steve Vaccaro, who has also brought a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the NYPD on behalf of the family of slain bicyclist Mathieu Lefevre. “The police leak self-serving information to the press at the same time that they stonewall access to that same information for the families of victims.”
This month, the Francis family formally appealed the NYPD’s Freedom of Information denial in state court. Here’s their petition:
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 26, 2012