An NYPD Cop Explains How Police Interactions with the Mentally Ill Go Wrong

We caught up with a Brooklyn cop about the tragic killing of Saheed Vassell. Obviously race is in play in cases like this one, but the officer also had harsh words for NYPD training on mental illness.
April 5, 2018, 10:45pm

By the time 34-year-old Saheed Vassell was pronounced dead late Wednesday, the crowd of bystanders who’d seen him gunned down by police in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, had already swelled into a protest. What made his killing so appalling was not merely that Vassell was unarmed, protesters said, but that he was known to be dealing with mental illness—both by neighbors and cops.

"The police officers knew him well in this neighborhood," Doris Marrero, a former neighbor who gathered with demonstrators on Thursday to light a memorial candle at the spot of Vassell's shooting, told me. "Of course they knew he had mental illness. Everybody knew."

But in New York, as in cities across the country, armed law enforcement are de-facto first responders in a psychiatric emergency, and this has long resulted in people—especially people of color—ending up dead. While almost half of all people killed by police may have a disability, those charged with helping them in crisis sometimes receive little or no significant training.

That's certainly the impression I got from an NYPD officer who used to patrol the 71st precinct where the shooting took place. When we met Thursday afternoon, his phone was blowing up: first a police administrative aide doing roll call and then his buddy, both checking to see if he would take overtime to work the protests in Crown Heights I attended later that day.

"We need to know why, when a 9-1-1 call is placed about an emotionally challenged person, it immediately goes to the NYPD," said Kirsten John Foy of the National Action Network at the protest, shouting to be heard by about 200 people. "Why is it not routed to emergency medical personnel who are familiar and trained in dealing with these persons? Why is it a singular response by the NYPD?"

I asked the Brooklyn cop for some perspective on how the NYPD—which just hours before Vassell's shooting had been trumpeting a stretch with relatively few shootings—trains cops to approach the most vulnerable. Three years after Black Lives Matter crested in the national consciousness, the picture he painted was not an encouraging one.

Jamaica's national flag is pinned at the site of a makeshift community memorial for Saheed Vassell, Thursday April 5, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

VICE: Three 9-1-1 callers reportedly told dispatch they thought they saw Saheed Vassell holding a gun, when in fact he was holding what's been described as a pipe or a shower head. How do you approach a call when someone says they’ve seen a gun but you don’t know for sure?
Active-Duty NYPD Officer in Brooklyn: It’s rare that you get a call with a gun and it’s actually a gun. More often than not when someone thinks they saw a gun, they saw a bulge in someone’s pants and it’s not a gun. But I think it also goes according to the precinct. There are precincts that are known for having more guns and more crime. The 71 gets more guns off the street, there’s legit a lot of shootings. I read the crime sheets, and in the 71, there’s one or two a month. The 71 will be more leary of having it be a real. It’ll affect the way you respond. But false gun calls happen lot, because again, people know your response time is faster.

Is there any way to tell which calls are legit?
You’ll have to check the callback. You want the guy that called 9-1-1 to speak with you, to ask, did you actually see a gun? But it’s hard, especially where I work now, I would say five out of 10 of these call come from 9-1-1 cell phones only. It’s basically a phone that has no service on it. It comes back as 911111111, it means the phone is only capable of calling out in an emergency.

Now that we all have job phones, we call back directly. But a lot of these people have a throwaway phone, or they have it just for wifi at home—they can’t afford the $20 or 30 a month, so they call but we can’t check the callback. Which is terrible, because if it’s a 9-1-1 phone only, you can’t check.

Witnesses and family said that Vassell struggled with mental illness and that police knew about his bipolar disorder, or at least had some idea about it. How often would you say that you’re called out to deal with an Emotionally Disturbed Person (EDP)?
Every day is different. You get days where you get zero, you get days where you get five. Everybody gets checked out by EMS [Emergency Medical Services]. EMS comes and nine out of ten times, EMS says, "You’ve got to go to the hospital." We respond at the same time as EMS. Even if EMS gets there first, they’re not leaving the ambulance until we get there.

As EMS, you don’t have guns, you don’t have anything to defend yourself, so you have to wait until the police get there. The police have tasers, the police have guns, the police have pepper spray, and the police have handcuffs. You have none of those as EMTs [Emergency Medical Technicians]. If the scene is safe, then you go out. If it’s not a safe scene, then you don’t.

As an officer, how do you approach an EDP call?
You tend to try to rationalize with them. That’s what they teach you in the EDP workshops. You don’t want to be like, "Bro, you’re fucking seeing shit, what’s wrong with you?" You tell him, "I understand, I know, they’re going to kill the president, so let’s go talk to someone so we can get help for the president." You’re not really lying to them but you are telling them what they want to hear. If you say "Dude, you’re out of your mind," that’s just going to agitate them. You can be a little more sympathetic, empathetic.

A majority of our calls for service are not dealing with EDPs—the majority are crimes. But we deal with this because EMS can’t deal with it by themselves. Sometimes it’ll be a little hostile, so they’ll say, "Just escort us to the hospital." But with this one guy we see a lot, they said, "You have to stay here until he’s admitted to the psych ER." That's 12 hours.

Do you see a lot of the same people?
Two or three out of five will be people I’ve dealt with before. Sometimes all five are five reruns. On my last assignment, there was this one female who lived under the expressway, she was drug addict and she was a prostitute—she lived out of an abandoned car.

She’s not violent, she’s irrational. And then usually you’ll say to her, "Listen, we’ll just go to the hospital." She doesn’t mind the hospital because they’ll feed her, they’ll give her methadone, a warm place to sleep. Most of the time it’s just observation, so they’ll keep her for 12, 24 hours and she’s back again. I’ve had times where she was still wearing the wristband from the hospital, so it’s only been ten minutes or an hour. Usually when they bring her to the hospital, they’re like, "When was the last time she was here?" And it’s like, "She just left."

How much training did you get to work with EDPs?
I got two weeks of training, five days a week, eight hours a day. It’s a very small percentage. The training was just: "Be understanding." They try to tell you listen, be empathetic, and get EMS there. The only time we get stuck there is if they’re violent and the hospital says we need a police officer there.

There were these actors that came in to do scenarios with us. The actors were great. They give you scenarios and they see how you handle it. Now when they do scenarios, every scenario they do now is recorded and they play it back for you. “You did this, that’s great, maybe you should have done this instead.”

Do you think that’s sufficient, given how much you deal with mental illness on the job?
No. They have to give the NYPD more training—and not just once. The training I got on EDPs was a week in the academy and a week two years ago, and that was it. If you’re a doctor or a nurse, you have to go through CME [continuing medical education], let’s say ten a year. I think if they gave it to us once a year, that’d be great. Not just as a refresher, but with new info. They send us every two years for CPR training, and every year it’s changing. Why not send us once a year for EDPs?

Do you ever feel like you’re able to help?
It’s rewarding when you can stop someone from jumping off [a bridge] because you feel like you really, really helped them, but it’s frustrating when it’s this guy again. We just dealt with this guy yesterday. You’re dealing with the same guy over and over again. At what point do we say enough is enough? They go to the hospital, they’re there for two, three, five, eight hours, 12 hours, and then they’re released. They’re not followed up. If anything, they say, "Listen, if you have anything, come back tomorrow or call us back if you need us." There should be some kind of structural help.

Like, right now if you arrest someone for controlled substance, they can get help. We ask them if they want help, and if they say yes—you don’t tell them you’re going to give a desk appearance ticket, but you give them a desk appearance ticket and clinical social workers come pick them up.

A lot of activists are saying if you see someone having a psychiatric emergency, don't call police. But it's not always safe to ignore a crisis, or to try to intervene. Is there a service like the one you described for substance users that bystanders could have called, or that 9-1-1 could have dispatched to respond in Crown Heights yesterday?
No. At this time, no. But there should be.

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