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Friday, December 26, 2008

NYPD tests alerts for mentally ill citizens

By Rocco Parascandola

NEW YORK — The New York Police Department has a new alert system that lets officers know if they are responding to locations where police have previously been sent to deal with the mentally ill, an initiative sparked by the fatal 2007 shooting of a man who confronted officers with a broken wine bottle.

Under terms of the month-old initiative, a 911 dispatcher handling a "triggering incident" - anything from a "shots fired" call to an assault in progress - checks the computer database for that address. The idea is to see if it has been the scene of three previous incidents involving an emotionally disturbed person in the preceding 365 days, according to an internal NYPD order.

If so, the dispatcher tells responding officers about those incidents and sends to the scene an ambulance and the Emergency Service Unit, whose officers are best-trained to deal with the mentally ill.

A police patrol supervisor, who is usually armed with a Taser, is also sent to the scene.

The program is designed to strengthen what observers and critics have typically seen as a police shortcoming. Two deadly confrontations in November 2007, including one involving the man with the bottle, plus a recent case in which a naked man fell to his death after he was jolted with a Taser, illustrate the challenges police face in such circumstances.

The NYPD is also working with mental health officials to identify locations, such as group homes, that house the mentally ill, according to Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, the NYPD's top spokesman.

"You don't want to leave it to an officer - hopefully the police officer on duty is one who happens to remember who lives there," Browne says. "It's better if we know in advance about these locations."

Police in Nassau and Suffolk have similar alert programs, which experts say could mean the difference between life and death.

"It's definitely not a cure-all," says Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "But it gets the supervisor rolling early, it gets ESU rolling early and it gets the officers going there talking so they can tactically prepare for what to do."

The NYPD last year responded to 87,000 emergency calls involving an emotionally disturbed person, up from 64,000 in 1999.

A panel of city and state mental health and criminal justice officials earlier this year recommended the NYPD "establish flags within its 911 database" that would require a response by Emergency Service Unit officers.

Browne, though, said the impetus came earlier, following the November 2007 police shooting of David Kostovski, 29, a mental patient who came at them with a broken wine bottle in a street confrontation in the East New York section of Brooklyn.

Kostovski lived in a home with several other psychiatric patients, a fact police had not known.

Six days earlier, another psychiatric patient, Khiel Coppin, 18, was shot dead in Bedford-Stuyvesant when he moved toward police outside his building armed with only a hairbrush, but claiming he had a gun.

The new NYPD initiative would not have applied to his case because there had been no documented police responses at his home.

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