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Don’t Blame the Cops for the Saheed Vassell Tragedy, but the City’s Mental-Health System

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Don’t Blame the Cops for the Saheed Vassell Tragedy, but the City’s Mental-Health System

New York Post April 7, 2018
Urban PolicyNYC
Health PolicyMental Illness

Editor's note: The following is an editorial from the April 7, 2018, issue of the New York Post,

New York’s Finest are on the hot seat again after four officers fatally shot an unarmed Brooklyn man, Saheed Vassell, on Wednesday. They don’t deserve it — but the city mental-health system does.

The officers were responding to calls of a man using a gun to terrorize folks, including an adult with a kid. When they got to the scene, Vassell, as video shows, took what police called “a two-handed shooting stance” and pointed the “gun” at the cops.

Except it was a piece of a welding torch that merely looked like a firearm.

Critics say the cops should’ve asked him to raise his hands before firing, or at least aimed for his leg. But the video suggests the officers had scant time to react; they were told he had a weapon and believed they saw one — pointing straight at them. They had every right to defend themselves. (As for aiming at his leg, cops only do that in movies; the risk of missing is too great.)

Vassell had 28 prior arrests, including some where he was labeled “emotionally disturbed,” and at least two admissions to a psych hospital. His father says he was bipolar and had been off his meds “for years.”

This was a horrible tragedy. But equally troubling is that countless others like Vassell roam the streets with mental problems that could lead to similar deadly incidents

The biggest victims here are the mentally ill themselves, as Vassell’s death proves. But lax treatment protocols also put the public at risk and cops in no-win situations.

The best way to prevent these nightmares is to get these people the help they need before they become threats. Shift Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $800 million ThriveNYC to focus on the seriously — dangerously — ill.

Push the Assembly to go along with strengthening Kendra’s Law so more families can get seriously ill loved ones the help they need, but won’t accept.

And then there’s the city’s Assisted Outpatient Treatment evaluators, who can invoke Kendra’s Law to compel people to take their meds: Move them out of a central office in Queens (where de Blasio has placed them) and back into the hospitals, jails and homeless shelters.

DJ Jaffe and Carolyn Gorman made this last point in Friday’s Post. When Brian Lehrer asked the mayor about it on WNYC, de Blasio pumped the 1-888-NYC-WELL hotline — whose operators tell you to call the police if it involves someone dangerous.

If the city doesn’t get more aggressive in having non-cops handle serious mental issues, Saheed Vassell won’t be the last such tragedy.

This editorial originally appeared in the New York Post

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Photo by Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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