On January 21, a mother’s call for help led to the death of two NYPD officers and her son. The mother, Shirley Sourzes, had requested assistance from the police to resolve an argument she was having with her 47-year-old son, Lashawn McNeil, telling the police that she did not believe she was in immediate harm. The officers—22-year-old rookie Jason Rivera and his partner Wilbert Mora—responded to the routine call and were met with gunfire by McNeil when they headed to the back room after McNeil failed to come out. McNeil was in turn shot to death by a third officer.
As we think about what we can do in the future to prevent such tragedies, we often overlook this critical question: Did the officers have to be there at all?
To be sure, once the 911 call came in, dispatching armed units was the default option under our current police-centric system. But what if Sourzes had had a different option than calling 911, or the 911 operator had had a different option than sending armed officers? Might a different presence have been more successful at defusing the situation than the police?
As a civil rights attorney and longtime public defender, I believe strongly that alternatives to policing are critical to the health and safety of overpoliced people and communities, historically and predominantly Black and brown. We don’t talk enough, however, about how alternatives to policing are also critical for the health and safety of officers. Our failure of imagination about how we deliver public safety fails them too.
During my eight years as a public defender in Brooklyn, I represented countless parents, sons and daughters, and domestic partners who called 911 during heated arguments. In some cases, they wanted to scare or cause trouble for the person with whom they were squabbling. Or they called out of desperation, believing that they had no other avenue to find help for their loved one. In most cases, they hoped the police would calm things down and ensure that violence would be avoided.
Too often, however, the result was precisely—and tragically—the opposite. For many people, especially in overpoliced neighborhoods, a police presence alone is traumatizing. They associate the police with being unfairly stopped, frisked, interrogated, arrested, handcuffed, assaulted, imprisoned, and even murdered.
Even if there is no wrongdoing on the part of the police, once they arrive, a whole system is unleashed. Handcuffs lead to interrogations, fingerprints, and hours in holding cells and courtrooms. This, in turn, is often followed by unaffordable bail and incarceration. And prosecutors often request protective orders that separate loved ones for months against their will, forcing people from their homes and all too often leaving children without key caretakers and families without needed incomes.
Considering these possible devastating consequences, it’s easy to see how the presence of the police can inflame rather than defuse a domestic argument. Might this have been what happened in the recent tragedy in Harlem?
Perhaps McNeil, who had moved in months earlier to support his mother following her serious surgery and, aside from older, out-of-state arrests, had been free from trouble with the law, knew armed police would soon be in the apartment and that he would likely be arrested and possibly jailed. A return to the past. He may have made the fateful decision that he was not going to go through it all again under any circumstances.
Imagine that instead of sending police officers, the dispatcher had another option: a mental health professional, a social worker, or a medic. Someone trained in defusing domestic situations. In New York City, a pilot program, B-HEARD, was instituted over the summer, operating in certain parts of Harlem in an attempt to implement said suggestions, and has since expanded its coverage to other parts of Harlem in November.
Programs like these give us a window into what an alternative reality could look like. One of the most prominent, the Oregon-based Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program (CAHOOTS), was launched in 1989; it dispatches one crisis worker and one medic to nonemergency calls. This program has seen great success: In 2019, police backup was requested in only 0.6 percent of the estimated 24,000 calls to which CAHOOTS responded.
While we can’t yet say for sure what would work best for every community, much less that the tragedy in Harlem could have been avoided, we do know that the presence of armed officers in altercations increases the chances that violence will ensue. That every year, police kill roughly 1,000 people. That there are innumerable cases in which both police and civilians have been shot and killed unnecessarily. Given these realities, isn’t it time to try a new approach?
Just days after the deadly shooting in Harlem, Mayor Eric Adams released a plan to address gun violence. He called for more police and stricter enforcement. He told New Yorkers, “The NYPD is our first line of defense against gun violence.” Adams responded to this tragedy by disregarding the very lessons it contains.
As a society, we have been taught that police should respond to every issue, and as a result, their outsize budgets take away resources from basic community needs, including schools, affordable housing, and infrastructure. This one-solution-fits-all approach is backed by neither data nor common sense, and all too often leads to violence and death.
Reducing unnecessary interactions between the police and the citizenry is good for the health and safety of both the public and the police themselves. Let’s give proven alternatives a try.