The Disturbing Prevalence of NYPD Taser Use on Mentally Ill New Yorkers

    Dwayne Jeune’s mom was looking for help when she called 911 in 2017. Her 32-year-old son, who had a history of mental health issues, was causing a disturbance in her apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

    He was not being violent. But 911 dispatchers did not contact the Emergency Services Unit (ESU) that is trained to handle situations involving people in a mental health crisis. Four NYPD patrol officers showed up instead, and after he moved towards them with a bread knife, one Tased him. When he continued his approach, the one officer not trained in crisis intervention shot him dead.

    People like Dwayne Jeune who are suffering from a mental health crisis are often arrested or subject to force when the police are called to manage these incidents. Now, new data sheds light on how frequently Tasers, which the NYPD has increasingly turned to in its everyday enforcement patterns, are used to subdue mentally ill New Yorkers.

    The department’s deployment of Tasers has exploded in recent years.

    Last month, the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the city agency tasked with oversight of the NYPD, released a report revealing that the majority of police misconduct complaints concerning Taser use came from people suffering from a mental health crisis during the incident.

    The CCRB found that 52 percent of such complaints from 2014-2017 involved either an individual deemed an “emotionally disturbed person (EDP)” by the police or someone showing signs of crisis—a number that rose as high as 67 percent in 2016. In 2017, 31 percent of the NYPD’s total Taser discharges involved an “EDP.”

    The department’s deployment of Tasers has exploded in recent years. While the devices were once only issued to supervising officers, the NYPD has now provided a Taser to every one of its patrol vehicles. There are currently at least 3,000 Tasers in the field—up from 1,710 in 2016.

    With 72 percent of Taser complaints also coming from people of color, and the vast majority from young men, we now have proof that the same communities that have historically felt the brunt of the NYPD’s enforcement power are disproportionately involved in the growing number of Taser incidents in the city.

    Another disturbing finding was that in most incidents involving a person in crisis, the responding officer had been informed of the individual’s mental health status before arriving on the scene, most often from a 911 call. Yet many of these cases could not be de-escalated or resolved without the use of force. 

    The CCRB’s analysis highlights how the NYPD’s vague use of force guidelines, the city’s dysfunctional 911 dispatching system, and a lack of robust alternatives to enforcement all contribute to negative outcomes for people in crisis. Instead of treatment for mental health or substance use disorders, their anguish is too often met with handcuffs or worse.  

    About 25 percent of the time officers used a Taser, its discharge was “unintentional.”

    The CCRB reviewed 114 complaints by civilians between the years 2014 and 2017. Previously, the agency has found that police officers who discharge Tasers frequently do so in situations involving people who are unarmed or have already been detainednot individuals who pose a serious threat to the officer or someone else. Shortly before the CCRB published its analysis of Taser complaints, the NYPD came out with a use of force review that contained its own shocking finding: About 25 percent of the time police officers used a Taser, its discharge was “unintentional.”

    The CCRB report comes in the wake of new reforms that will soon see the NYPD pilot a “co-response” model for 911 calls involving people in crisis. Since 2016, the city’s mental health initiative, ThriveNYC, has also experimented with co-response teams that partner patrol officers with mental health workers. But the units have never been widely used or properly synced with 911 dispatching systems, and have played an extremely limited role in the city’s approach to affected populations. 

    911 calls involving a person in crisis have nearly doubled in the last decade, but a city investigation found that only 21 percent of patrol officers had received crisis intervention training as of January 2017. The NYPD said it would take until at least 2023 before all officers are trained on proper techniques for responding to people in crisis.

    The outcomes for individuals in crisis are as predictable as they are distressing: 56 percent of 911 calls involving someone with a mental illness lead to ER visits; police officers are present in 75 percent of these hospital transports; and 43 percent of people incarcerated on Rikers Island are mentally ill.

    The CCRB investigation also found a conflict between the NYPD’s training on appropriate Taser use for executives and the guidance it provides to its own patrol officers on Crisis Intervention Teams (CITs). Executives are taught that tasing mentally ill civilians is often the most effective response in order to make a quick arrest, especially in cases where they are running away from the scene.

    The CCRB recommended that the NYPD patrol guide and associated trainings better define when it is appropriate to use Tasers in “drive stun mode” (which causes more pain than other Taser settings in the process of subduing a suspect). NYPD trainings do not include examples of when using a Taser on that setting is considered excessive force—and also do not define the “exceptional circumstances” that the NYPD patrol guide deems acceptable for using a Taser in drive stun mode.

    One limitation of the report concerns the difficulties the agency has had with obtaining Taser data logs from the NYPDa process that the authors said “has been long and arduous enough to discourage CCRB investigators from requesting the data logs in the first place.”

    Cases like Jeune’s illustrate how breakdowns at multiple levels of the city’s response to people in crisis can cascade into tragedy. First, 911 dispatching services failed to appropriately triage the call; then an officer who was not trained in crisis intervention was sent to the scene; and finally, the CIT-instructed officers did not take the lead in de-escalating the incident. Instead, the officers Tased Jeune and then used lethal force.

    Jeune had no history of violent behavior and the 911 call that came in from his own mother was a request for respondents who would approach him like someone in need of treatment, rather than as a dangerous threat.

    Axon, the company that sells Tasers to law enforcement, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the city.

    Back in 2006, the NYPD had just 160 active Tasers in service. But department officials have spoken enthusiastically about expanding the use of Tasers; and Axon, the company that sells Tasers to law enforcement agencies, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the city. Tasers’ deployment is only likely to grow as an alternative to more lethal weaponry. NYPD officers discharged a Taser 45 percent more often in 2017 than in the previous year.

    The CCRB has proposed more thorough officer training, clearer use of force guidance, transparent data collection processes, and the automatic recording of incidents by body worn cameras. These reforms may encourage more responsible Taser deployment and reduce its use as a response to people in crisis. However, they are unlikely to bring the kind of radical change the city needs to productively respond to incidents involving mentally ill people.

    Consider another finding in the report: that in 57 percent of Taser discharges, the responding officer did not adequately warn a civilian before using a Taser, despite being trained to do so. Police officers are used to using force as a response to disorderly or disturbing behavior, and robust guidelines for police will not resolve the fundamental issue: that law enforcement is often not the institution best suited to respond to people in crisis.

    New York city should embrace solutions beyond what the CCRB recommends in its report. For example, the city’s public advocate, Jumaane Williams, has called for the creation of a non-police phone number that can serve as an alternative for people to call for crisis response and increased funding for mental health urgent care centers. Cities such as Eugene, Oregon have installed innovative programs that connect mental health teams to 911 systems, involving no police response at all. 

    As the NYPD continues to shift its enforcement priorities towards the use of Tasers as an alternative to firearms, the city must adapt its social policy to ensure that people in crisis and other marginalized communities are protected.


    Photo by Corey Ryan Hanson via Pixabay.

    • Aaron Stagoff-Belfort

      Aaron works in the Policing Program at the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice policy and research organization. His program focuses on fundamentally shifting the culture of American policing by making it less reliant on punitive enforcement.

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