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.
Now, however, there is hope that the terrain in New York State may be tilting toward a new crisis intervention model that pairs teams of mental health professionals with specially trained officers to respond to mental health emergencies, rather than cops. Just within the last few months, several proposals at several levels of government have moved closer to reality, thanks, in part, to the advocacy of Communities for Crisis Intervention Teams, a coalition of more than sixty behavioral health providers and concerned New Yorkers.
In February, New York State Senator Kevin Parker proposed a bill that would require Crisis Intervention training for the NYPD. Not long after, in April, New York State set aside $400,000 from the 2014-2015 state budget for a pilot program to train police officers in approaching the mentally ill during crises. And in June, the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio created a task force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System, with the goal of providing New York with a pathway to treat the mentally ill outside of the criminal justice system.
Meanwhile, the Bah family is in the process of suing the city of New York for $70 million in damages as well as changes to the way the NYPD responds to emotionally distressed New Yorkers in crisis. They are calling specifically for the police department to implement a Crisis Intervention Team methodology. If that had been in place when Hawa Bah called 911 two years ago, they believe Mohamed would still be alive.
“I want justice, and the justice I want is not just for my son,” said Hawa Bah, crying into the phone. “It’s for all people to not feel like I feel. I used to work and help my children, help my family. Since they killed my son, I can’t do nothing, I can’t walk three blocks.”
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The Crisis Intervention Team model was pioneered more than twenty-five years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, after police killed a mentally ill young man they had been called in to help. The idea emerged out of months of consultations between the police department, mental health providers and two universities, and was designed with the goal of creating “safety, understanding, and service to the mentally ill and their families,” according to the Memphis city government website. Towards this end, the program has forged a close partnership between mental health providers, people with mental illness and law enforcement. Police and mental health professionals respond together to crisis calls, and the police also receive extensive training to help individuals in crisis, especially those who are mentally ill.
In the decades since it was launched, the CIT program has become a model for other cities around the country. Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Houston and San Antonio have all employed some form of the program, with impressive results. Since San Antonio implemented its CIT program in 2003, for instance, the city’s police force has not once engaged in deadly force against someone in the grips of a psychiatric episode.
New York City, however, has yet to join the list of cities that have embraced CIT. Indeed, it is the only major city in the United States that has not done so, despite the 100,000 “emotionally disturbed person” calls the NYPD receives each year. What the city does have is an Emergency Service Unit that consists of an elite corps of officers trained to respond to extreme emergency and high-risk situations. These include everything from SWAT and counter-terror operations to assisting mentally ill New Yorkers. It is worth noting that it was one of these units that was called in to quell the situation with Mohamed Bah the day he was shot.
The NYPD also provides its cadets with between eight and sixteen hours of training each year in responding to New Yorkers in high emotional distress, and 1.5 hours of training in working with people with disabilities, according to the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. But Rabinowitz argues proper crisis intervention training should be closer to 40 hours a year for officers as well as cadets.
“Police are the first to encounter those in an emotional crisis and police are on the frontlines, whether we like it or not,” said Community Access’s Rabinowitz. “They need tools to respond to these crisis calls so everyone can walk away safely.”
Rabinowitz, along with Steve Coe, the CEO of Community Access, and other advocates have spent years pressing for the NYPD to shift its approach to these crisis episodes. But it wasn’t until last year that their efforts began to get traction. That is when a group of mental health advocates formed the coalition “Communities for Crisis Intervention Teams” in an attempt to begin a conversation around crisis intervention with the candidates then running for mayor. The coalition researched CITs in other major cities and approached the candidates, asking them to include establishing CITs in their platforms. As mayor, de Blasio went a step further by establishing a task force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System last June. Its goal is to research and then recommend and implement strategies to decouple mental health treatment from the criminal justice system, with which it has all too often been lumped.
“I’ve charged the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System with developing innovative strategies to transform, reform and update this city’s criminal justice system,” de Blasio said in a statement announcing the task force. “In the interest of justice and public safety, the task force will take a comprehensive look at how, as a city, we can provide real, lasting mental health and addiction treatment for those in need.”
Advocates expect recommendations to come from the task force within the next month, or perhaps sooner. (There are whispers that its recommendations could be released as early as this week.) It is their hope the task force will recommend Crisis Intervention Teams as well as a diversion unit so that police can take those suffering from a mental crisis somewhere besides a hospital or central booking.
Dustin Grose, a twenty-nine-year-old Brooklyn native, shares this hope. He has first-hand experience of the way a situation can quickly turn violent when the police are the primary responders to crisis calls. At 14, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 2008, after an argument with his parents, his mother called the paramedics to take her son to the hospital, concerned he was having another episode. As in the case of Mohamed Bah, the police arrived. He reluctantly went outside with the four officers who came to his bedroom door and then, as Grose recalls, an officer hit him, unprovoked, in the face. Because he was handcuffed and punched repeatedly, he suffered a broken nose as well as back injuries and injuries to his hands.
Grose also sued the city of New York and settled for an undisclosed amount. “A person with a mental illness is not a criminal,” he said. “I wasn’t even in an enraged state and that happened to me. I wasn’t fighting with them… so imagine if someone was already enraged and imagine if a cop treated him as a criminal, it leads to death.”
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As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. This article is part of Cities Rising, The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.