In October of 1984, a team of city police officers tried to enforce an eviction order against a Bronx woman by the name of Eleanor Bumpurs.
Following an altercation during which Bumpurs, 66 and with a history of mental illness, tried to slash an officer with a knife, another officer fired two rounds from his shotgun, killing her.
In the decades since, and following several similar incidents nationwide, more than 2,000 municipalities and their police departments created so-called “crisis intervention teams” to train officers to better respond to incidents involving emotionally disturbed people.
New York City was not among them. Until 2015.
That the city and its police force eventually came around to the notion of training its officers to recognize and then effectively handle potentially explosive situations involving people with psychological issues is largely due to the efforts of Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access, a Battery Park nonprofit dedicated to helping people with mental health problems.
“If I’m good at anything, it’s organizing for advocacy,” Coe said recently. “When Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg’s term was up, and there was going to be a new mayor and police commissioner, we created the group, Communities for Crisis Intervention Training.”
The group had meetings, created a website and eventually drafted a position statement. “We found allies all over the place,” he said.
Still, incidents involving police and the mentally disturbed kept happening, often escalating into full-blown confrontations, or worse. Coe recounts a couple as if he were there: A man’s wife is arrested after police think the husband is having a psychiatric breakdown when he’s in fact experiencing heart trouble; two innocent bystanders are shot in Times Square by police pursuing an emotionally disturbed man.
“Next thing we knew, these individuals were at our press conferences. We gained a lot of traction that way,” Coe said.
Their efforts paid off and during his first year in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio set up a task force to look at the mental health and criminal justice system in the city. Last June, the police department started training their first class of officers in crisis intervention.
“A weeklong training with thousands of officers really changes the culture of the squad room and the precinct,” Coe said. “A 911 call is often the first point of intervention for someone with a mental illness.”
TRAINING IS A ‘CRUCIAL’ ASPECTThe police department did not respond to requests for comment, but Eugene O’Donnell, a former city police officer and prosecutor and now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said cops deal with mentally ill people as a matter of course. Any training toward that end is therefore imperative.
“The reality is that anything that allows you to compose yourself and get a thought in before you act is wonderful. When I was on the job, we had a very minimal amount of information,” O’Donnell said, adding that police work has been “in the dark ages” about mental illness.
“It’s hard to find a more important area of police work,” he said, particularly since “a high percentage of police killings involve the mentally ill.”
A so-called illness model is and should be a large component of policing, he said.
“You calibrate your approach completely different to someone is having an illness beyond their control. The challenge for the cops is, they are law enforcers not caregivers, but they have to wear both hats. Some can only wear the enforcer hat well, and not the caregiver. The more you know the more balanced you are as a cop, and you can put on the caregiver hat when you need.”
Michael Woody, the president of CIT International, a nonprofit that facilitates the implementation of crisis intervention programs, said training is crucial since police are usually first on the scene of an incident involving the mentally ill.
“Law enforcement are often the first responders to a mental health crises, because we don’t have many institutions anymore, and they are all underfunded,” said Woody, whose organization is based in Memphis, one of the first cities to create a crisis intervention team within its police department, and from which New York would eventually borrow expertise. “The average policeman is the gatekeeper. They could take the person to jail and charge them with a small crime, or they can take them to get the help they really need, because mental illness is a medical issue, not a criminal one.”
Coe said that injuries involving police and people with mental health issues “drops dramatically” following the implementation of crisis intervention programs.
“These individuals’ outcomes improve as we divert them away from the criminal justice system,” he said. “Do these people belong in a courtroom? Should they be charged for a crime? Or can we have them go into a treatment program and report back to a judge.”
Crisis intervention, he said, saves money and saves lives.
“When [de Blasio and police Commissioner Bill Bratton] came in, we made sure they had the information in their hands based on what works,” Coe said.
The next phase is to create diversion centers, staffed by peers and professionals, where police officers could take nonviolent individuals suffering from psychiatric conditions rather than ferrying them off to hospitals or jails.
“I think that an interdisciplinary team is essential. We can’t expect the police to do this on their own,” said Emily Goldmann, an assistant professor at New York University’s College of Global Public Health.
“It’s not necessarily that police are trying to act in an aggressive way,” said Goldmann, a former epidemiologist with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “It is a lack of knowledge in what to do and how to de-escalate the situation. You can’t talk someone out of a [psychiatric episode] in the same way as someone who doesn’t have mental illness.”
COE HONORED Under Coe’s leadership, Community Access became one of the first city agencies to embrace mental health consumers — known as “peers” — as members of its workforce, more than 20 years ago. The agency’s goal is that 51 percent of staff should be mental health consumers.
“In the peer-training program, we think of a mental health history as an advantage. We build on their understanding, teach them how to write case notes, conduct interviews, and prepare them to work in the field,” Coe said. “We want to take the experience of being in the mental health system and make it a qualification.”
Community Access has a mission is to expand opportunities for people living with mental health concerns to recover from trauma and discrimination through affordable housing, training, advocacy and healing-focused services. Each year, Community Access programs help over 10,000 New Yorkers who connect with the organization.
Coe was honored for this advocacy work this week at the National Council Conference in Las Vegas, where he was be presented with the Council’s Behavioral Health’s Individual Achievement in Advocacy award. He will be given $10,000 to donate to the nonprofit organization of his choice. Coe said he would give his prize money to Community Access as a way to acknowledge and express gratitude to his colleagues at the nonprofit.
“I share this recognition with all of them,” he said.