WNYC Runs Story About Policing Mental Health Crises Based On NYLPI-Obtained Bodycam Footage

October 28, 2019

Disability Justice, Media Coverage, NYLPI v. NYPD, News

Bodyworn Camera Footage

WNYC Reporter Cindy Rodriguez ran a story about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to reform police responses to mental health crises, today, based on audio gathered from bodycam footage of the shooting, secured by NYLPI under freedom of information laws.

Police initially refused to release full bodycam footage of the death of Miguel Richards, a Bronx man who died in 2016, until NYLPI sued for the full footage, leading to a breakthrough ruling for New York’s Freedom of Information law.

“When an individual like Miguel Richards just stands completely mute, motionless, in a darkly-lit room, the police aren’t able to tell what’s in his hands, you can tell that this is not going to to go well,” NYLPI’s Director of Disability Justice, Ruth Lowenkron, told WNYC. “This is neither good for people with disabilities, nor is it good for the police.”

Ruth said Mayor de Blasio’s plans to reform police interactions with people in mental health crisis don’t go far enough, and that while we applaud the general effort by the mayor to prevent more New Yorkers dying at the hands of police, his office needs to remove police as the first respondents to mental health crises, and replace them with peer responders, in line with best practices.

“This would be a win-win situation to get things out of the hands of the police,” Ruth told WNYC. “And treated as the health care issue that it really should be.”

You can listen to the full WNYC story here:

The print version of the story, which ran at Gothamist, is also reproduced below.

NYPD released heavily-edited footage to the public after they shot foreign exchange student Miguel Richards 16 times in September 2017, following a 15-minute confrontation in which Mr. Richards stood silent and motionless, holding a knife in one hand, and what turned out to be a toy gun in the other.

The video showed the police did little to de-escalate their confrontation with Mr. Richards, who was experiencing a mental health crisis. Instead, they yelled repeatedly that “this isn’t going to end well”, that he was “seconds away from getting shot” and asking him, “do you want to die?”

It was the first fatal police shooting since the NYPD’s court-ordered pilot program for the cameras began five months earlier. The edited footage did not include footage from all of the officers’ body-worn cameras, nor did it include footage from the aftermath of the shooting. The NYPD continued to withhold, blur, and mute more than half the body-worn camera footage of the shooting, despite repeated public records requests by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) under New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) for the full footage.

The court ruled in NYLPI’s favor on June 13 and NYLPI filed another action on August 16 when the NYPD again refused to provide the public with the bodyworn camera footage of the police shooting and killing another individual experiencing a mental health crisis.

Rethinking 911: Are Police The Right Response When Mental Illness Is Involved? Advocates Say No

On a September day in 2017, police were called to a red brick multi-family home on Pratt Avenue in the Eastchester section of the Bronx. They went to perform a “wellness check” at the request of a landlord who was concerned about his tenant.

Police found 31-year-old Miguel Richards, an exchange student from Jamaica, standing completely still in the corner of his dark bedroom, wearing sunglasses and holding something in his hand. The officers pointed a flashlight at him. And kept asking, “what’s in your hand?” Richards did not respond.

The call was labeled an EDP, police jargon for Emotionally Disturbed Person. Police get hundreds of these calls a day.

“My man, put that down. This is not going to end well for you if you don’t put that down,” one unidentified officer yelled.

Richards still wouldn’t talk. The stand-off lasted roughly 23 minutes. Early in the confrontation, officers considered closing the door and waiting. With guns drawn, they continued to warn him instead.

“You are seconds away from getting shot if you don’t show us what’s in your hands,” the officer yelled again.

The officers did not use the de-escalation techniques that cadets are now taught in the academy: Use a low voice, build a rapport, draw someone out, find a hook that will motivate a person to comply.

Instead, they did what officers are also taught when they see a weapon: Yell commands to get compliance when they believe someone has a weapon. Officers thought they saw a gun, but aren’t sure.

“He’s got a knife and a gun,” a different unidentified officers said. “I don’t know if it’s a toy or not.”

They called for a unit with a Taser and when the officer arrived, he stepped into the room and shot Richards with the Taser. Within seconds a red laser appeared, Richards seemed to raise his arm and point, and officers responded with gunfire.

This was the first police shooting ever caught on a body camera in New York City. Eight days later, the police released an edited video of what occurred. The gun turned out to be a toy. For officers, it was a potential threat and, from a police perspective, it was a justified shooting.

However, to Ruth Lowenkron, Director of the Disability Justice Program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the shooting exemplifies why a law enforcement approach doesn’t work with someone who has mental health issues.

“Everything went wrong,” she said. “And I really take care not to point the finger at police.”

Her organization has requested body camera footage from four police shootings that involved someone mentally ill. In Richards’ case they sued for all eight unedited videos and won. Lowenkron believes that when a law enforcement approach is used on someone in a mental health crisis, the result is inevitable.

“When an individual like Miguel Richards just stands completely mute, motionless in the back of a darkly lit room, the police are unable to tell what if anything is in his hands, you know that this is not going to go well,” she said.

While the edited video police initially released showed what happened up to the shooting, the video Lowenkron won in court showed the chaotic scene that ensued after.

The officers are breathing heavy and appear to be shaken. One of them believes Richards is still alive, yet no one renders aid for roughly three minutes. Instead they are focused on finding a weapon and they handcuff and search him.

“You guys see something under the bed?” one of the officers who shot his weapon is heard asking on the video. “He had something in his hand like a laser pointer he was pointing at us. I don’t know if it was a gun or not.”

In a written statement, the NYPD said, “In the matter of Mr. Miguel Richards, our Force Investigation Division conducted a thorough investigation and determined that the officers’ actions were within department guidelines.”

Lowenkron and a dozen organizations are adamant it is the wrong response.

“This is neither good for people with disabilities, nor is it good for the police,” she said.

They want mental health professionals instead of police to respond to people like Miguel Richards.

“This would be a win-win situation to get things out of the hands of the police and treated as the health care issue that it really should be,” she added.

The NYPD has been grappling with this issue for decades. But early last week, without much fanfare, City Hall put out its plan for preventing shootings that involve people in a mental health crisis. And it does not transform the city’s massive 911 system or dramatically change the response to emergency calls.

Instead, the plan, the result of a task force convened last year, takes a preventive approach. The $37 million initiative will increase outreach and services to frequent 911 users and to those who are hard to treat and often living on the street.

“We’ve added much more of a public health response to what is essentially a public health problem,” said Susan Herman who runs the city’s mental health policy office called Thrive.  Thrive, created by First Lady Chirlane McCray, has faced scrutiny over how it spends its budget, $850 million since the initiative started in 2016.

A network of community organizations is also expected to assist people upon discharge from psychiatric hospitals to ensure they stay in treatment.

“We have more public health professionals available to intervene early and to respond quickly to urgent situations,” Herman added.

The city will also experiment with small pilot projects. In Staten Island, 911 operators are trying to divert 911 calls to the city’s mental health help line. And, in two precincts, the NYPD will experiment with letting a clinician accompany officers on certain calls, though which calls hasn’t been decided yet.

Anything less than changing the way 911 calls are assessed for risk when they first come in and then having a menu of options, including sending only mental health professionals to respond, is tinkering around the edges,  said John Volpe, the health department’s former Special Advisor on Criminal Justice. He sat on the task force that examined these issues. Volpe said the NYPD’s natural reflex is to always respond if there’s even the possibility of violence.

“In some of these conversations, EMS, fire, others wanted to … really look at these calls in a deeper way, and look at probability rather than possible,” he said.

That would take analyzing data and, according to a draft report from the task force that was never made public, the city hasn’t looked at their statistics closely enough to be able to answer basic questions such as how many 911 calls turn violent or involve a weapon.

Houston, Texas did take a deeper look. They spent years analyzing their police response to the mentally ill. Jennifer Battle, Director of Crisis Programs at the Harris Center for Mental Health said they started the program by searching their 911 data system for calls labeled “information only.”

“Which means that the person wasn’t taken anywhere. There was no written report,” she explained.

What they found was dramatic. In 2017, the Houston PD responded to just over 37,000 mental health calls. And 41 percent were “information only,” meaning the police response was unnecessary.

“What you have is a person potentially needing mental health care who still wasn’t getting what they needed,” Battle said.

In three years, 6,000 calls were diverted from police and fire. It’s a small fraction of what was possible. Battle says that’s because there are still many restrictions on what calls her counselors can take. But she said 911 operators recently let her counselors collaborate on high-level emergencies—code 1 calls such as one involving a female caller in distress threatening what’s known as “suicide by cop”.

The caller was a female victim of domestic violence. She was using alcohol, screaming and crying and she had a knife.  A mental health counselor, who now sits in the same office as the 911 operators, talked to the woman on the phone for about 20 minutes.

“The crisis line specialist was actually able to de-escalate that person, have them put their weapon down so when they voluntarily walked out of the house to meet the law enforcement officer, they didn’t have the weapon with them,” Battle said.

In Houston, it has taken time for mental health counselors to gain the trust of a traditional 911 system that, at first, was reluctant to change. That process is only just starting in New York.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Thrive has spent $850 million since its creation in 2016.


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