On a recent windy night in Brooklyn, the flickering glow of a dozen small candles illuminated a bouquet of flowers with a note, bearing the inscription "We Love You, We Miss You." The makeshift memorial marks the spot on Tompkins Avenue, in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Iman Morales was killed on Sept. 24 by a member of the New York Police Department’s Emergency Service Unit.
Morales was a friendly and hardworking man who had a psychiatric disability. He was emotionally distressed on the afternoon of Sept. 24 when he climbed, unclothed, onto a ledge outside his apartment. He was then shot with a Taser gun by a member of the ESU, causing him to plunge more than 10 feet to his death on the sidewalk below.
Following this avoidable tragedy, on Oct. 2 the cop who gave the order to use the Taser gun on Morales committed suicide, leaving behind three young children.
Morales’s brother, Jesse Hernandez, said: "One of the things my brother always said was that he wanted to change the world. Hopefully this will change something. Hopefully no one will ever have to go through this again." (New York Post, Oct. 3)
Many community groups and organizations in Brooklyn and around the city are saying that this tragedy must serve as a catalyst for a complete overhaul of the way in which emergency situations involving individuals with psychiatric disabilities are handled in New York.
At a rally and march organized by Rights for Imprisoned People with Psychiatric Disabilities on Oct. 1, demonstrators called on the city to end the SWAT-team-like tactics too often employed by the ESU and instead implement community intervention teams with trained mental health workers and complete community oversight.
The rally featured speakers from 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights and Make the Road New York, among others.
Freeborn Gill, a speaker from RIPPD, said: "We stand in solidarity to stop this kind of abuse. We demand that the commissioner come out and speak to us and listen to the resolutions that we have. … The whole NYPD needs to be revamped. … There needs to be an intermediary between the community and the NYPD."
Lisa Ortega from RIPPD said that community intervention teams would be committed to nonviolent de-escalation techniques performed by mental health workers, not armed cops. Ortega explained that community intervention teams are already being used successfully in other cities in the U.S. and that community input and community oversight in the creation and implementation of these teams is absolutely essential.
Ortega told Workers World: "Training alone isn’t going to do it. You could have the best training in the world but if there is no accountability, if there is no community oversight, then it’s a façade and it does not work."
Indeed, the city’s only other means for responding to situations involving individuals with psychiatric disabilities are 23 mobile crisis teams (MCTs) spread throughout the five boroughs. These teams are contracted out by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to private, for-profit hospitals around the city. Many of these teams have drawn criticism for their lack of accountability to the community, as in the death of Khiel Coppin.
Khiel Coppin was an 18-year-old African American with a psychiatric disability who was killed on Nov. 12, 2007, when the NYPD fired 20 rounds at him outside his Gates Avenue apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They claimed they thought the hairbrush he had in his hand was a deadly weapon.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, a community largely of Black and Latino people, has frequently suffered racist violence and indignities at the hands of the police.
In the hours before Coppin’s death, his mother had contacted an MCT through Interfaith Hospital in Brooklyn and asked them to come assess and assist her emotionally distraught son. The team went to Khiel’s apartment but left without seeing him after his mother informed them that he had momentarily left the premises.
Members of Coppin’s family were critical of the MCT, saying the team left prematurely and missed a critical opportunity to prevent Khiel’s death. Increased community oversight and accountability could prevent these types of service lapses.
Immediate action must be taken so that these types of tragedies never occur again. For more information, visit www.rippd.org.