ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - When New York City police responded to a Brooklyn apartment last year, they were confronted by a man who banged on their patrol car with a steak knife, refused orders to put it down and finally lunged at officers before one of them shot him to death.
What officers didn’t know at the time was that 22-year-old Rexford Dasrath had a long history of mental illness, and his mother believes he would be alive today if police were better trained to deal with such situations.
Mental health advocates agree, and they propose the state spend $2 million so New York and other cities statewide can establish training programs to help officers assess and de-escalate confrontations with such suspects while establishing “crisis intervention teams” with mental health professionals.
“They didn’t need to shoot him,” Felicia Dasrath said last week. “It will be very difficult for the rest of my life.”
The issue was raised again this past week when The Associated Press reported that a 56-year-old mentally ill homeless man “baked to death” in a Rikers Island jail cell that was heated to at least 100 degrees. Advocates argued that the man, who was found to be sleeping in a building stairway, should have been sent for treatment rather than jailed on a trespassing charge.
“When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said state Sen. Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat who has introduced legislation to establish a New York City pilot program. A separate measure is being proposed in the City Council. “We’re here to say someone going through a mental illness crisis is not a criminal.”
The so-called Crisis Intervention Team model is already used in some form by 2,700 other jurisdictions nationwide, including in Los Angeles, when that police department was headed by current NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton.
The NYPD said in a statement it would review any program that might help the public, adding that its officers are trained throughout their careers in how to recognize and react to emotionally disturbed people.
Last year, officers responded to nearly 121,000 calls of an emotionally disturbed person who might have been a threat to themselves or others - and through March 19 of this year had already responded to 26,787 such calls, an increase of more than 5 percent from this time last year.
“The department will be assessing several crisis intervention models that range from responding to persons with substance abuse, non-residency and mental illness,” the statement said.
The training was credited with reducing the use of force on disturbed individuals to 2 percent of the most violent cases in Los Angeles in 2012, said Carla Rabinowitz, an organizer for the nonprofit Community Access in New York City. She listed a half-dozen other mentally ill suspects who died in the past few years in encounters with New York City police.
“This campaign is not anti-police,” Rabinowitz said. “What we want to do is create a model that gives the police the tools they need to respond to these crisis encounters.”
Roughly 10 percent of calls to medium and large police departments involve someone with mental illness and often take more time to resolve than routine calls, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Community Mental Health. “Our findings suggest that Community Intervention Team training influences the ability of police officers to resolve encounters … using force less frequently and to appropriately link these individuals with services rather than unnecessarily arresting them.”
The program offers guidance for 911 dispatchers on gathering information on known psychological and addiction problems and 40 hours of training for patrol officers on such topics as maintaining a safety zone while assessing the situation and avoiding the temptation to immediately answer a crisis with force.
Most officers with extra training in the 2010 study reported their most helpful response tactic was talking to the person. The study also found the training helped resolve more encounters without force and sent more troubled individuals to psychiatric and social services instead of jail.