Hawa Bah had not expected the police.
It was September 2012, and she had just arrived in New York from her home in Guinea to check in on her 28-year-old son, Mohamed. She had heard he had been acting strangely—missing work and skipping classes he was taking at the Borough of Manhattan Community College—and wanted to assess the situation for herself. When he holed up in his Harlem apartment and refused to leave shortly after she arrived, she grew concerned enough to ask a cousin to call 911.
Bah was expecting medical workers, so when police officers appeared instead, she was perplexed. “Let me talk to my son,” she begged as the officers began forcing their way into her son’s apartment. “He never tells me no.” But the police brushed off her concerns, telling her “not to worry.”
What unfolded soon after was a violent confrontation between the police and a desperately ill young man that ultimately led to his fatal shooting. After police officers kicked down his door and began yelling at him, Mohamed Bah lunged toward two of them with a knife, splitting open their protective vests. Three of the officers then pumped as many as eight bullets into him, one of which entered the left side of Mohamed Bah’s head. One of the officers left with a knife cut to his arm.
The death of Mohamed Bah, sudden and dramatic as it was, was not an anomaly in the long, troubled history of encounters between the New York Police Department and the city’s mentally ill. The last few decades have been punctuated by cases like this, stories of men and women in the grips of psychosis who wound up dead or wounded after police had been called in to help. Eleanor Bumpurs, Gidone Busch, Kevin Cerbelli, David Kostovski, Shereese Francis and Iman Morales all died after encounters with the police went horribly wrong, and many more have been hurt or arrested in the process.
For the families of these victims as well as advocates, the deaths of their loved ones—children, brothers, sisters and mothers—have raised unsettling questions about what might have happened differently if experts trained in crisis intervention had been called to the scene rather than the police. Could their deaths have been avoided if they had been treated like people in throes of psychiatric breakdowns, not criminals? “[The police] yell to get the situation under control instead of taking a reflective listening approach. It escalates the situation,” said Carla Rabinowitz, a community organizer with Community Access, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to providing services and support to New Yorkers with psychiatric disabilities.