NEW YORK—On a balmy September evening last year, two young women were headed to Times Square for a girl’s night out. They planned to see what was on at the movies.
A few seconds later, Sahar Khoshakhlagh was shot by a police bullet intended for someone else.
But for the 38-year-old Iranian-born mental health worker, what was more traumatic was that the police were shooting at an emotionally disturbed, unarmed man, who had been lurching around in the middle of the street.
“This man could possibly go to jail. That really weighed heavily on my conscience. I have to say something,” Khoshakhlagh said. “He didn’t do anything to me, and he needs help, this is a person who obviously needs help.”
Khoshakhlagh suffered a minor injury from the police bullet, a grazing of the buttocks, while another bystander was shot in the knee. The police entirely missed the man, Glenn Broadnax, 35, though he was eventually subdued with a Taser gun.
Broadnax has been charged with assault on the basis that he is responsible for Khoshakhlagh’s and another bystander’s injuries. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 25 years in prison.
He was unharmed, but police encounters have all too often ended tragically for the emotionally disturbed.
A recent case is of Rexford Dasrath, 22, who was shot and killed by police in Brooklyn last November.
The NYPD reported 56 incidents involving the emotionally disturbed where people were accidentally injured or killed by police gunfire in 2013, according to State Sen. Kevin Parker. Although a record low compared to previous years—83 similar incidents were recorded in 2012—some experts feel these deaths could have easily been avoided by a few simple techniques.
A New Approach
Before lurching around in traffic near Times Square, Broadnax was talking to dead relatives in his head. At the time of the police shootings he was trying to throw himself in front of cars to kill himself, according to court documents.
When the police confronted him, he put his hands in his pockets, pulled them out, and simulated shooting at the officers, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said shortly after the incident.
Professor Gary Cordoner, author of several books on policing, said for the emotionally disturbed, the typical “command and control” approach where officers surround and shout at the person, often has the opposite effect.
Across the country, a popular way to try and resolve the problem is through Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs, which are designed to improve how the police and the community respond to emotionally disturbed people.
CITs consist of officers who have had specialized training, and workers from hospitals and community groups. The idea was first started in Memphis in 1988 by Maj. Sam Cochran and has since been adopted in San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia, to name a few.
Los Angeles adopted a CIT model in 1995. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department while the program was in place, but it is yet to be implemented in New York.
CIT training for police officers includes officers putting on headphones that simulate the voices in the minds of people who are emotionally disturbed.
The NYPD responds to around 90,000 calls regarding the emotionally disturbed each year, according to a 2008 report by the New York Mental Health-Criminal Justice Panel. Recent reports put that number as high as 150,000.
Mariann Wang, Khoshakhlagh’s lawyer, thinks that rather than using money to prosecute Broadnax, it would be better to use it for training.
“It just seems not the proper use of resources,” Wang said. “Why aren’t they using exactly that amount of money to figure out how to make a program for the police to deal with [the emotionally disturbed] in a better way.”
“They pulled out their guns, it’s not the way to do it,” she said.
Police said the officers who opened fire had been on the force for one and a half years and three years respectively.
A bill, called the Crisis Intervention Act, introduced by Parker, would mandate specially trained CITs to respond to calls involving the emotionally disturbed.
The Communities of CITs, a coalition of 50 behavioral health providers, is holding a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 11 a.m. in front of City Hall to call for the passage of the new bill.
Speakers include Parker, Suzanne LaFont, whose husband was injured by police when they thought he was emotionally disturbed, and Khoshakhlagh.
Voice for the Voiceless
Khoshakhlagh hasn’t spoken at news conferences or at advocacy groups before. But fueled by her firsthand experience of being shot, and her profession managing Brooklyn-based housing for 48 adults who are emotionally disturbed, she feels compelled to stand up for the voiceless.
“That’s part of the difference of knowing something intellectually, and then when you are experiencing it firsthand, it opens up to this other life,” she said.
As a childhood refugee from war-torn Iran, and a mental health professional, Khoshakhlagh feels it is her duty to help the police understand how to better deal with the emotionally disturbed.
When she was in school and she saw someone bullied, she used to react by stepping in.
“[Emotionally disturbed people] don’t have the kind of support system that we have. I’m drawn to that, I think that it’s not fair that some people are disadvantaged, they can be bullied in society, they can become a scapegoat in society,” she said.
“People who obviously need help, almost get sucked into the system,” she added.
In an open letter to Mayor de Blasio and Bratton dated Jan. 8, 2014, Khoshakhlagh asked the administration to learn from the past.
“I am writing this not only because the police shot me, but because this incident highlights a serious problem that the NYPD should make it a priority to address,” Khoshakhlagh wrote.
She also wrote: “Everything we do during a crisis matters. You cannot put out fire with more fire.”
Wang remains hopeful in the new administration after its open approach to stop and frisk.
The two women are waiting for a response to their letter before considering the possibility of a lawsuit against the NYPD.
“We haven’t made a decision, we are hoping that de Blasio would respond, I thought he would,” Khoshakhlagh said.