In 2008, Iman Morales, a 35-year old man with mental illness, fell to his death after being tasered by a police officer while standing on a ledge in Brooklyn. Later that week, the police lieutenant who gave the order and feared jail took his own life.
It became clear then that for New Yorkers with psychiatric disabilities— and the police officers given no appropriate tools to help them— New York’s criminal justice system is broken and behind the times.
Eighty cities and counties around the country have taken on new policing models to make interactions between police and people with mental illness safer for all involved and reduce arrests. But the NYPD refuses to adopt these new models despite their proven effectiveness in deescalating crises.
Instead of taking the lead, the NYPD continues to fill prisons with people with psychiatric disabilities actually in need of treatment. Even as the New York State prison population dropped by 8% in 2008, the prison population with psychiatric disabilities rose by 19%.
Last week, experts from a program in Westchester which focuses on intervention travelled to New York City to share the success of their model with the NYPD and advocates at an event organized by Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities (RIPPD). On Westchester’s Crisis Intervention Team, police officers work with social workers to provide support for residents with mental illness, helping them recover and keeping them, their community, and police officers safer in the process.
By making intervention their mantra, this program has prevented people with psychiatric disabilities from ending up in the criminal justice system. As Mark Guiliano, Coordinator of Westchester’s CIT and Mental Health Outreach Westchester’s CIT, puts it: “Just showing that someone cares makes a big difference.”
Unfortunately, no members of the NYPD came to talk with the police from Westchester, despite the fact that staff from the 79th Precinct in Bedford Stuyvesant— where Iman Morales was killed— had indicated they would attend. RIPPD has reached out personally to numerous police precincts in New York City to no avail. In the past, the NYPD has claimed that New York is too big to implement this more effective model of intervention. But big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston have successfully created programs that retrain officers and reprioritize connecting people with social services, instead of sending them to jail.
How can the NYPD not implement this program? Too much is at stake— including the unnecessary harm of both people with psychiatric disabilities and the police who interact with them on a daily basis.
Olga Negron, the mother of Iman Morales, knows the stakes too intimately. “I miss him so much. My heart hurts everyday,” she has said of her son. She is not alone. The list of New Yorkers with mental illness harmed by police unprepared to help them is too long, and includes Earl Black, Rodney Mason, Alan Zelencic, Stephanie Lindboe, Khiel Coppin, Gilberto Blanco, and David Kostovski.
The NYPD must do the right thing by New Yorkers with mental illness, their family and friends— and by their own officers. Until the NYPD modernizes their tactics, each of those calls will continue to be a chance for avoidable tragedy.
Read the Spanish-language version of this column.
By Alexandra Smith, a member of RIPPD and a criminal justice advocate at the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center. Mary Clare Dougherty, Co Coordinator of Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities, contributed material for this piece. RIPPD is a grassroots organization of formerly incarcerated people with psychiatric disabilities, advocates and family members.