Business As Unusual: The Police Get It Wrong Again

  • It was business as unusual for the New York City police department on September 24, 2008, as officers responded to the scene where an EDP-emotionally disturbed person-stood on the awning below a fire escape, naked and poking a 10-foot long stick.

    The lieutenant, identified as Michael Pigott, gave the order for a cop to Taser the guy. A Taser fires barbs that deliver thousands of volts of an electrical current. It was a violation to use it in the event a person could fall from an elevated surface. With no one to break his fall, Iman Morales fell to his death. This blog entry is dedicated to the memory of Iman Morales.

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    You may remember the NYPD in the news lately for other shootings, including the death of Gideon Busch, an unarmed man with a mental illness, and the story of Khiel Coppin, an 18-year old man armed only with a hairbrush, whose mother wanted to get her son help-he was shot dead instead.

    As I rode the express bus home from the City today, I overheard the driver say, "How was the cop supposed to know the guy was mentally ill?" My question is: What part of "naked man on an awning" eluded the lieutenant's grasp that something was wrong with that picture? A man standing naked on the awning below a fire escape is not well, and to think otherwise would be ludicrous.

    Lieutenant Michael Pigott committed suicide shortly after he gave those orders. He was a 21-year veteran of the force who was placed on modified assignment without his gun and badge. The officer who fired the Taser was put on administrative duty while an investigation is held by the police department and the Brooklyn district attorney.

    One death is one too many. You may want to read Crazy: A Book Review, an earlier blog entry of mine that talks about Pete Earley's expose of the jails-as-mental-hospitals syndrome. Apparently, there are pockets of law across America where responding officers are barely schooled in responding to people with mental illnesses.

    In Brooklyn, a model mental health court has been set up to divert from jail people who commit crimes while psychotic. Iman Morales didn't commit a crime. He was just an ordinary, quiet, well-liked guy who needed medical treatment, not a stun gun.

    I would like not to write about this; however, I want that Iman Morales' life was not lived in vain. I used to tell my first therapist, Aldo, about my "bakery string theory"-I wondered if the line separating sanity from the illness was as thin as a bakery string. I'm no different from Iman Morales except that my medication works, and I take it. The box holding my life together is tied with bakery string.

    The lieutenant who ordered the Taser be fired was at an Emergency Response refresher course in Floyd Bennett Field when he committed suicide. In a way, I pray for his soul, too. He obviously was distraught. It's a tough job, and you'd be surprised how many cops secretly attend therapy. It doesn't fit their macho image to break down, yet years of repressed feelings could take their toll. Domestic violence, child abuse, people pushed onto subway tracks: they deal on the frontlines of humanity every day. This doesn't excuse the behavior of the bad apples that ruin it for the bunch of good cops.

  • Every day I wake up to live another day I'm grateful to be alive and have my sanity intact. I know that if I weren't taking my medication every day as prescribed, the bakery string would loosen until my grasp of reality slipped away.

    In the end, this cautionary tale is a sign post at the intersection of stigma and anosognosia. With stigma, people are afraid to seek treatment because of how it will look; they don't want to be associated with the Iman Morales types of the world, or worse yet, Andrew Goldstein who pushed Kendra Webdale into an oncoming subway train in New York City. The truth is, most people with schizophrenia aren't violent as long as we're in treatment; the ones that go without medication have a slight increase in the possibility of violence. With anosognosia-a symptom of the schizophrenia that is the lack of awareness that one has an illness, it's doubly hard to recover because you refuse the treatment that would make you well.

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    Cops and CITs-crisis intervention teams-need to know that the behavior of a person with a mental illness isn't willful, it's a coping mechanism to deal with what they believe is actually happening. If you had delusions, if you thought your life was in danger, that someone was persecuting you, you would do what your unwell mind told you was necessary to stay safe. Even if, to an outside observer, your actions were bizarre, they would seem perfectly logical to you.

    Iman Morales was a greater danger to himself than to the cops. This is what I would tell every responding officer: get inside the mind of the emotionally disturbed person, see things from his point of view. It's a little thing called empathy, and unfortunately, cops aren't trained to be empathetic. Too often, they make hair-trigger decisions. Those decisions are based on fear.

    The sad reality is that too many people fear others who are different from them, and their ignorance has a payoff: they can stay closed off, narrow-minded because their small minds don't want to do the mental and emotional work necessary to truly get to know someone else. The doors are slammed shut for any number of reasons-parental influence, early conditioning or experiences with other people or without other people, and in the case of the police, their occupation fosters a "ready, fire, aim" mentality.

    Khiel Coppin, the 18-year old man who needed help, shouted out that he had a gun. All he had was a hairbrush. Who knows what voices were telling him that he had to say that to defend himself from the harm he felt he was in. The cops needed to wait five seconds, actually look in his hand, and verify with their eyes that he was holding a gun.

    Here's what I think: every police officer should be trained at the academy by a forensic psychiatrist and be required to listen to NAMI's In Our Own Voice presentation led by people living with mental illnesses. If you are a peer who does public speaking, you could arrange to talk to the cops in your neighborhood. When cops see that there's no difference between them and us, it should sober them up-if they don't run scared.


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    Rest in Peace: Iman Morales, Gideon Busch and Khiel Coppin.


Published On: October 07, 2008