News & Politics

How I Learned Not to Call 911

The Saheed Vassell shooting sparks memories of avoiding alerting authorities about a mentally ill parent

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During the time my mother, Marguerite, had most of her manic episodes, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the West Farms section of the Bronx that was protected mostly by a police lock. It was an old-school twentieth-century New York situation, with a floor-mounted steel bar affixed to a dead bolt so no one could bust down the door.

This lock made me feel safer than the thought of calling the actual police ever did, even when I worried my mother might kill me or herself. The lock kept all our troubles inside instead of letting the world rush in.

In Black and brown neighborhoods, we hesitate to call 911 because we know it can end in death. The death last Wednesday in Crown Heights of Saheed Vassell, who was fatally shot multiple times by police officers for brandishing what turned out to be a metal pipe, is the latest reminder.

Reading that Vassell was bipolar and Black, I was transported back to that apartment with my mother, where even as a frightened teenager I understood how important it was to protect my mother’s life as well as mine.

Like Vassell, Marguerite had a mental illness that made her hoard things. Like Vassell, she liked to regularly attend morning mass — a devout Catholic, she was a regular at the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church and, when she had at least one token, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We learned in that little five-story subsidized housing building in the Bronx with the thin walls that it wasn’t so easy to keep your business to yourself. Mom’s manic episodes could be set off by anything, and could last for minutes or hours as she screamed and paced. Her yelling was unhinged, and so were her punches.

I was the only kid in our family still living with Mom in the Bronx; my siblings had gone to live with other relatives back when she lost what was left of her mind, after my brother Jose was hit and killed by a Philadelphia bus when he was twelve years old. My grandmother has said that no one in our family took me from my mother because I was just a baby at the time, and all she had left.

As long as it was just the two of us, I reasoned as a girl, I could take the abuse. It seemed better than whatever the police would do to her or to us. When I was five years old, the neighbors called the authorities after Mom burned me with a straightening comb. I was put in foster care and didn’t see her for a year. I feared the next time would be for longer, if not forever.

It was never a question in my mind that I would be loyal to my mother instead of seeking help for myself from the authorities or police. This was true even when she found objects to beat me with, when she wrapped her hands around my throat and threatened to kill me and it felt like she might actually mean it.

One night when I was thirteen, it got so bad that the neighbors, who generally resisted calling the police for all the reasons I’ve said above, did call them. Sometimes it’s difficult to do nothing.

The presence of officers inside our building was enough to alert her that she needed to breathe deeply. That she needed to lower her voice. That other people were listening and watching. Thankfully, things did not escalate. We closed the door, clicked the police lock back into place, and went to bed.

All over the city, New Yorkers express discomfort about calling the police, particularly when people of color might be in danger. Shakthi Jothianandan, a journalist who lives near a mental health rehab clinic and halfway house in Manhattan’s Kips Bay, says that even when she hears yelling at all hours of the day and night and her fight-or-flight response is engaged, she’s apprehensive about calling 911.

“It seems that most people know not to call the police about someone being ‘a danger’ or ‘suspicious’ because we understand the many populations who live here,” Jothianandan says.

Native Brooklynite Jennifer Pozner, a journalist, book author, and frequent Voice contributor, says that she first wrestled with this dilemma more than a decade ago, when in pre-gentrification Kensington she saw a huge fight involving students of color but hesitated to call the police. “I wanted to help the kid who was being hurt, but I also knew that the best-case scenario of calling 911 would be that each of those kids would probably get a record — likely including the kid who was being beaten up,” she says. “And that’s the best case; at the worst, I worried that cops could beat up or shoot the kids.”

Vassell’s death shows how quickly things can go wrong after a 911 call, and not just because of the NYPD’s long history of problems dealing with the mentally ill, which have persisted even after the introduction of new crisis intervention training. The officers who shot Vassell appear not to have been his local police, but rather other strategic response and “anti-crime” units typically assigned to shootings. They would not have known him, and would not have known that he sometimes took medication.

I have been reminded these last few days of Charleena Lyles, the mentally ill Black woman fatally shot multiple times by police officers last year in Seattle. Yes, she was brandishing a knife. But the police had been to her apartment before. And Lyles was pregnant. They killed her in front of her babies.

Every day, New Yorkers encounter so many mentally ill people, whether on the street or in their own buildings. The most recent data for New York shows that some 95,000 New Yorkers with serious mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, have not received mental health treatment in the past year. There are fewer mental health beds than ever. Very few of the people who need mental health treatment the most can either afford medication or manage to adhere to it.

It was ultimately stage IV cervical cancer that killed my mother six years ago, but the deaths of Saheed Vassell and Charleena Lyles suggest that she could easily have shared their fate.

One time, distraught, confused, hot tears streaming down my face, I ran out of our apartment building down cracked marble steps into the Bronx summer air just to feel the breeze on my face, to remember how big the world was, how small my problems were, how small I was.

My bipolar mother came running after me in the dark, shouting, because it was late and she was worried. Reading about Vassell’s life and death, I wonder what a different life I would have had — and my mother would have had — if someone had called the police, mistaking our need for air, our way of trying to maneuver around despair, for something more sinister, less human.

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