A Hardball Look at the NYPD Confrontations with the Disabled and Mentally Ill

“In 2018 alone, police have shot and killed 64 people with mental health disabilities.” - American Civil Liberties Union

A Hardball Look at the NYPD Confrontations with the Disabled and Mentally Ill

By Vijai Naraine

New York is made up of diverse communities and along with them comes a line of defense. To speak about what the New York Police Department (NYPD) expects of their officers, the agency has put together a mission statement.  According to the city’s official website, the department’s mission is “…to enhance the quality of life in New York City by working in partnership with the community to enforce the law, preserve peace, reduce fear, and maintain order.” Police officers are people of the law; however, there is a communication barrier between the police and the community. The NYPD is one of the many teams that stand on the front lines to keep the streets of New York City safe. Living in a 21st-century society, the definition of “safe” has a fine line when it comes down to the interactions between law enforcement and members of the New York City community.

The tension that has been created by the communication barrier can be confirmed by the body cameras worn by NYPD officials. One group that law enforcement has trouble with is the disability community. Many times as NYPD officials interact with a person who has a disability, they don’t take the time to assess that the individual may not have the capability to understand what is being asked of them. As a result of law enforcement’s inability to effectively communicate with disabled individuals, the majority of the times injuries or death are the outcomes.

One individual who has suffered the ultimate price for not adhering to police officers’ commands because of his disability was 22-year-old Adam Trammell. According to the American Civil Liberties Union,“In 2018 alone, police have shot and killed 64 people with mental health disabilities.” According to “BBC News,” “It was shortly after 5:00 [on May 25, 2017] …when three West Milwaukee police officers broke into the home of 22-year-old Adam Trammell to find him naked…standing in his bathtub as water from the shower ran down his body.”  A neighbor had called 911 to report that she had seen him naked in the corridor, talking about the devil. She thought Adam’s name was Brandon and told police this when they arrived at the building.

The footage on the body cameras of the West Milwaukee officers showed what happened as they arrived at the home of Mr. Trammell. Police called out to “Brandon,” obviously the wrong name. They got no answer, so officers broke down his front door. They found Mr. Trammell showering in the bathroom, pulled back his shower curtain, and told him to come out of the shower.  Trammell, who had schizophrenia, was having some form of a breakdown. He did not respond immediately, so they fired their Tasers at him. Footage taken from the police body cameras shows that, as soon as he came to, police again began demanding that he exit the shower. When he sat there rocking, they fired their Taser at him again: long, painful electric shocks as he screamed and writhed in the bathtub. Over a 30-minute period, the police fired their Taser at him 15 times. Trammell died on his living room floor.

All too often incidents like Mr. Trammell’s story occur because there is no incentive by law enforcement individuals to consider that they may be dealing with a person who may not have the mental capability to understand what is happening around them.

Stacy Drescher, who formerly worked in the Department of Education as a guidance counselor for 12 years, reacted to the situation at hand.  “My reaction to Adam Trammell’s case is that I find the account horrifying.” Indulging more into the account, Ms. Drescher believes that there must be protocols when using a Taser on an alleged suspect, and for it to cause death.  Regarding Mr. Trammell’s death, “The Taser was a deadly weapon.” Deadly incidents should not occur as much as they do when it comes to talking about the interaction between law enforcement officials and individuals of the disability community of New York.

Having the correct educational background when it comes to interacting with law enforcement officials is essential.

According to Ms. Drescher, “Working as a school counselor, I believe, they should offer …workshops.  Unfortunately, they would not offer credit-bearing classes.” The school counselor is concerned that with the Trammell case, there was no life-threatening action on the part of the schizophrenic individual.  However, she also states, “I am sure there is active and ongoing training on how to approach and handle cases where there is a suspect who may have an emotional or psychiatric disturbance. I cannot imagine this is not happening.”

Getting the perspective of some other people, Karishma Ramratan provided some of her opinions and what she has learned from sitting in a criminal justice classroom. “As a pretty diverse individual myself, I made it necessary to try and understand other people’s cultures and situations. I don’t believe I am going into this industry with the mindset that I am a big macho man with an ‘S’ on my chest.…” On her part, as a woman, and not being big and macho, she emphasized that it is important to have intelligence.  She believes that this leads to policing rather than policing with force. “What happened to Adam Trammell was an unnecessary tragedy.”

Karishma Ramratan is a criminal justice graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“As a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, I am all too familiar with the difficulties between the mentally disabled and the NYPD. People who suffer from disabilities such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder most times come into hostile contact with the NYPD…”  Ms. Ramratan believes there is a reason for this. She says, “Cops are required to take on many roles…and are not properly trained to handle. They are needed by the public to be enforcers of the law, medics, psychiatrists, communicators, body language detectors and many more professions all in one to be able to do their jobs proficiently.”

It is crucial, as a law enforcement officer, that you remember you are dealing with people of all types of background.  “Many times, however, many police officers are not equipped with these skills. Most officers are unable to effectively communicate with the mentally disabled, and they struggle to read body languages.” Ms. Ramratan says.  As an up-and-coming individual in the criminal justice realm, the John Jay graduate sees that policing is more for helping people rather than making them a criminal. She hopes that with this awareness, she will accept and be able to implement proper training when needed. Taking into consideration that she has not done any formal training when it comes to dealing with disabled individuals, she says, “I am well aware of the problems between officers and the disabled community and I strongly believe that it has made a difference in me. I know that violence is not the answer.”

Jamie Cardona, a New Media Technology student at LaGuardia Community College shared his thoughts on the matter.  Referring to the Adam Trammell incident, Mr. Cardona said, “It is unacceptable behavior by the police. To see an individual who is not responding and naked; even if police were unaware he was an EDP (emotionally disturbed person), common sense would dictate that there was something wrong with the individual.”  Mr. Cardona has the same thought process like Ms. Ramratan. The New Media Technology student believes that there is undoubted, bad judgment by the police officers involved in this incident. Better training is needed and perhaps some psychology class to teach law enforcement how to deal with special needs individuals.  Mr. Cardona went so far to say, “There should be a class to teach students how to interact with the police. Sadly there have been too many incidents in the last few years that indicate it is a definite necessity… it is unfortunate that it is something we are having a conversation about in this time and age.” He points out that this type of event or behavior, on the part of law enforcement individuals, has now become a common occurrence and has seemed to become standard, regarding harassing or mistreating individuals like in the Adam Trammell case.

Mr. Cardona gave an example of another event with similar stature. In the 1980s, an elderly woman by the name Elenor Bumpers was living in New York with a form of mental problems.  According to Mr. Cardona, “…She was being evicted from public housing and she came out with a steak knife, and there were several police officers in the apartment; not one of them could control her.”  To his point of bringing up the story, Mr. Cardona reiterated that police officers need better classes and better training to prepare them to interact with the mentally ill, “…and help them understand how to be more humane.”

According to the National Center on Criminal Justice & Disability, “50-80 % of an officer’s encounters are with a person with a disability.”  Letting that sink in, the website also states, “A person with a disability is seven times more likely to be a victim of a crime.”

In summary, law enforcement and the community, as a whole, need to do more to create safe spaces for individuals who have disabilities.  Another issue that needs to be worked on is communication. Communication is an essential key to understanding how to help, not only disabled people but also just being able to effectively make everyone’s life easier and safer.

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