With the gunman taking his own life in the Binghamton bloodbath, we may never know what demons drove him to him to such carnage. He acted before the police got there.
But tens of thousands of times across the country—over 80,000 times annually in New York City alone—police do get there in time and nobody dies.
Over 80,000: That's the number of calls to 911 that the NYPD receives annually reporting emotionally disturbed persons—EDPs in police parlance, or in the blunt characterization of a frightened 911 caller, someone "acting crazy." Sometimes it is someone acting harmlessly eccentric. But often it is someone seriously disturbed, someone who is "off his (or her) meds" and posing an immediate threat to a friend, family member, or stranger.
Recently, an emotionally disturbed man, off his medication, stabbed an NYPD sergeant in the eye, causing damage to the brain. The sergeant is now struggling to learn how to speak again.
The NYPD also responds annually to more than 200,000 calls of domestic incidents, another source of potentially explosive violence as evident in the shooting death of three Pittsburgh police officers who walked into an ambush on a domestic call last weekend.
There's no time to schedule psychiatric evaluations or counseling sessions in instances when the police are summoned. In New York City, members of our elite Emergency Service Unit—who have special training in dealing with EDPs and in the use of nonlethal alternatives to deadly force—are dispatched on all calls in which an emotionally disturbed person poses a risk to himself or others.
The volume of EDP calls indicates both the promise and failure of pharmacology and deinstitutionalization as alternatives to psychiatric incarceration. In the midst of the fiscal crises of the mid-1970s, the state of New York thought it could both save money and treat emotionally disturbed people more humanely by closing its sprawling mental institutions and rely instead on revolutionary advances in treating mental illnesses with prescription medications.
But what happens when patients don't take their pills? The police have to deal with it.
In relatively rare instances, an emotionally disturbed person will be injured or even killed by responding officers. Or the EDP will kill or seriously injure one of them. Recently, an emotionally disturbed man, off his medication, stabbed an NYPD sergeant in the eye, causing damage to the brain. The sergeant is now struggling to learn how to speak again.
Then there are the cases of what happens before the police have time to arrive. Binghamton is just the most recent example.
Hidden from public view, however, are all of the quiet, successful outcomes that result when the police are called and no one gets hurt. This happens about a thousand times a day in New York City, when one considers the number of EDPs and domestic disputes alone that we handle.
That's something to keep in mind the next time the police are second-guessed when a confrontation with a dangerously disturbed person doesn't end as well as some think it should.
Raymond W. Kelly was appointed police commissioner of the City of New York by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, making Commissioner Kelly the first person to hold the post for a second, separate tenure. Commissioner Kelly was formerly senior managing director of global corporate security at Bear, Stearns & Co. Before that, he served as commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service.