U.S. Cops Continue to Kill the Mentally Ill in Large Numbers, Especially in NYC, While Effective Approaches Are Ignored

By Terrell Jermaine Starr / AlterNet March 21, 2015

Times Square is a national landmark that welcomes millions of tourists each year. On Sept. 14, 2013, however, visitors witnessed a major flaw in how the New York Police Department deals with the mentally ill at Times Square.

Glenn Broadnax, 35, was walking in and out of traffic when he was confronted by police officers. They eventually opened fire on him and missed him, but hit two women bystanders, who survived. Video of the shooting went viral and critiques over how poorly the officers at the scene dealt with the situation followed.

"Cops don't know enough about the mentally ill," Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in Manhattan, told CBS News' Crimesider at the time.

Broadnax, who was unarmed, was charged with wounding the bystanders who were shot by police. It was a perverse form of justice, but you could count Broadnax lucky in one way. He narrowly escaped being one of the 56 mentally ill New Yorkers who were fatally shot by the NYPD that year. It was a significant drop from 83 people in 2012, but a Brooklyn lawmaker says that’s still not enough.

“We would like to see that number at 0,” State Senator Kevin Parker of Brooklyn told AlterNet.

Parker is hoping a bill he introduced in 2013 requiring all police officers in New York state to undergo Crisis Intervention Training, an intensive week-long course that trains officers on how to deal with mentally ill people in distress, will be signed into law by the end of this year. Currently, there is no centralized way in which the NYPD or other law enforcement agencies in the state of New York train its officers on how to deal with mentally ill people. Only threedepartments in the state (Westchester, Nassau and Monroe counties) offer CIT training to their officers.

As it stands now, NYPD cadets receive a paltry eight hours of mental health crisis training, according to Carla Rabinowitz, a community organizer who has been advocating for the NYPD to undergo CIT training. Under the CIT model, officers would get 40 hours in one year. They would also learn techniques for how to speak with someone who is suffering mental duress: never yell, show your hands at all times, don’t threaten or surround the person, and reduce the intensity of the moment.

The NYPD has an Emergency Support Unit (ESU) that is called on to deal with mentally ill people but it comprises just 366 of the 35,000 officers on the force. The unit also does more than just respond to calls of people who are in emotional distress, so the members aren’t specifically trained or charged with handling mental health crisis calls.  

Charles Cochran, the founder of CIT training, told AlterNet that the CIT model, which has become the national standard for training police officers to deal with the mentally ill, is more than a training program. In order for it to work, it must be implemented in conjunction with mental health providers and community advocates.

“It’s really not a law enforcement program, that’s another mistake people make about CIT,” he said. “It’s a community program. Law enforcement is a very significant part of it but it is no more administered or owned by law enforcement than the other providers.”

The former Memphis cop created the CIT model during the late 1980s after the mother of 27-year-old Joseph Robinson called 911 to seek help for her mentally ill son who was stabbing himself with a knife. The cops ended up shooting Robinson, an incident most people in the community believed could have been avoided had the officers been better trained to deal with people in severe psychiatric distress. After months of community conversations over how the shooting should have been better handled, Cochran began training Memphis police officers on the best ways to respond to calls where they may encounter a mentally ill person. He says the training helped but it was because everyone in the city of Memphis bought into the model.

Eventually, other cities around the country adopted Memphis’ model and saw improvements in how officers deal with mentally ill people. Before CIT was implemented in Memphis, there were 35 injuries to mentally ill people per 100,000 calls; three years after CIT was introduced, that number dropped to 7 per 100,00 calls.

CIT is not merely about training, Cochran added. Police officers have been in training “since the beginning of time.” Most importantly, police work with the residents of the community and mental health advocates as a unit to address the city’s issues. The police cannot act unilaterally to better serve the mentally ill. That won’t work.  

Carla Rabinowitz told AlterNet this concept has been a challenge for the NYPD to embrace.

“The problem is that the [NYPD] doesn’t want anyone telling them what to do,” she said. “That is a real problem in New York City, but the core of CIT is the community working with the police.”

AlterNet emailed the NYPD questions about its mental health crisis training for officers but did not get a response.

Under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, the NYPD was resistant to additional training of officers, but current mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a $130 million plan that includes two drop-off centers for mentally ill people that will serve as alternatives to jail. Under the plan, 5,500 officers would undergo 36 hours of mental health crisis training.

But, as Rabinowitz told the Marshall Project, a website devoted to coverage of the criminal justice system, that may not be enough. She says advocates were aiming for at least five drop-off centers because two can overflow quickly, given the city’s massive population.

As police-involved killings of mentally ill people make national headlines (such as recent shootings in DeKalb County, GA and Los Angeles), police departments nationwide are being forced to review their training on how to deal with people in a mental health crisis. If a resident calls 911 in New York City, they have the option of a criminal justice or health emergency response. There is no mental health option.

At least half of the men and women killed by police each year in the U.S. are mentally ill. Yet out of the 18,000 or so police departments in the United States, only 2,700 of them are trained under the Crisis Intervention Team model. Cochran added that while CIT can help reduce police-involved shootings of mentally ill people, the training won’t mean much if the mental health infrastructure in the community the officers are serving don’t support them.

According to a USA Today series on mental health in the United States, states cut $5 billion in mental health funding from 2009-2012. During this time more than 4,500 public psychiatric hospital beds were eliminated, or 10 percent of the country’s supply. That explains why 26 percent of people living in homeless shelters have a mental illness and 46 percent live with a mental illness or substance use disorder. Often, untrained police officers are the first responders, which can lead to deadly consequences for the person in crisis. 

The Albuquerque Police Department implemented CIT in 1997, but in 2010 and 2011, nearly 75 percent of the people killed by APD suffered from a mental illness. The most egregious police-involved killing of a mentally ill person in Albuquerque was James Boyd, in March 2014. Video of the shooting clearly shows there was no need to shoot Boyd. Two officers involved in that shooting have been charged with murder.

Asked about this, Cochran says Albuquerque had moved away from the principles of CIT, which has led to shootings such as Boyd’s. “They drifted away from the core elements of CIT and it became just a training program,” he said. “It did not stabilize as a community program.” (The New Yorker recently published an extensive feature that, in part, lines up with Cochran’s points.)

He added that everyone shouldn’t be trained to specialized in CIT, as it is an intensely people-skilled position that may not be a good fit for every officer. 

“It takes a very disciplined, skilled mature leader to be able to duck into the middle of a crisis event and address the multiple layers of fear, including fears of the individual in crisis, fear of the people who may be present and the fear of the officers who may be present as well,” Cochran said. “That takes leadership, skills, judgement and understanding of his or her role as a CIT officer and they take that very seriously. They are committed to this role because of the passion they have as to their performance and their leadership.”

Studies support the argument that CIT helps to reduce the number of violent encounters mentally people have with police. The American Psychiatric Association said last year that more research needs to be conducted to fully access the true impacts of CIT.

L. Joy Williams, president of the NAACP Brooklyn branch whose chapter is supporting Parker’s bill in Albany, told AlterNet that CIT training won’t completely address how NYPD officers respond to people with mental illnesses. However, she believes it would have provided a better option for Iman Morales’ mother, who had no idea a 911 call would lead to her son’s death. She called 911 on Sept. 8, 2008, for help talking her mentally ill son down from a third-floor fire escape in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. Morales had stripped naked and believed the ESU cops were there to kill him. One of the officers on the ground fired his stun gun at Morales and struck him. Morales fell to the pavement and died.

“Just think of the different response had there been people on the ground responding to that issue,” Williams said. “It should be police officers, social workers or however we determine how that response is handled, as long as we are able to get to a place where Morales would still be with us. That to me is progress, that there is more than one response that can happen from a mental health emergency."

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.