Vearry Hale still hasn’t given up hope for her son.
Terrance Hale, according to his mother, battled mental health issues for years. The father of a 10-year old daughter, Terrance, now, 31, was diagnosed as both bipolar and schizophrenic when he was a teenager. He battled the conditions for years. His mother, meanwhile, worried not only about her son’s conditions, but what could happen to him as a result.
In 2012, one of her worst fears was realized when police officers showed up outside her home as she waited for an ambulance for her son. Terrance Hale would end up being accused of committing one of the most politically-charged crimes in the city: attempted murder of a cop.
Vearry Hale looks out the windows of her apartment in East Harlem’s Franklin Plaza
Terrance lived in a modest East Harlem apartment with his mom. His occasional schizophrenic episodes would loosen his grip on reality so much so that one time he told his mother he was god. It wasn’t uncommon for Ms. Hale to get so worried that she’d call 9-1-1, hoping to get her son some help. Once medics arrived, Ms. Hale could talk her son into a waiting ambulance.
In mid-April of 2012, Ms. Hale called 9-1-1, as she had in the past, and asked for medical help after Terrance began going through another episode. Cops, as they too often do, arrived first. Ms. Hale, who had been waiting with her son, went downstairs to the front of her building to see if any ambulance had arrived. Instead, she saw a police car. She asked the two cops who came out if they were there for her call, for Terrance.
The two officers, Eder Loor and Luckson Merisme, were new faces to Ms. Hale, who was familiar with other cops from the local precinct who knew her son’s conditions. Loor and Merisme seemed aggressive and eager, she says, which worried her. According to Ms. Hale, one of the officers insisted that an ambulance would “take two hours.” When they asked to go upstairs, she resisted. At that point, she says, Officer Loor said they were “going the fuck upstairs.”
Ms. Hale outside the building where cops showed up after she called 9-1-1 to get her son medical help
To understand the fear that families of victims of mental illness experience during police interactions, you can look at the long list of those killed by cops who, more than anything, needed help. Recent examples are horrific enough.
A little over a month ago, Brooklyn cops shot and killed an emotionally disturbed man, Dwayne Jeune, after his mother also called for help for her son. Police claim Jeune had a knife and media reports labeled Jeune “deranged.” The officer who killed Jeune, Miguel Gonzalez, reportedly shot another emotionally disturbed man the year before.
Earlier this month, hundreds of activist marched and rallied alongside family members of victims of mental illness who’ve been killed by police. Many parents point out that police continually defy their own protocols for dealing with emotionally disturbed people (or EDP’s, as they refer to them). Police Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill acknowledged as much in the fatal shooting of 66-year old Deborah Danner last October in the Bronx.
Jeune’s death reignited concerns over calling 9-1-1 when police can be death sentences for the mentally ill and emotionally disturbed. While Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted calls for a special task force to look at policing of the emotionally disturbed, one reform that advocates have long called for is that more officers receiving Crisis Response Intervention Training (CRIT), which ostensibly would teach cops to diffuse tense situations instead of resolving them with lethal force.
The NYPD’s response has been that cops get enough training. “All NYPD officers are trained extensively on how to recognize and respond to emotionally disturbed persons, and that training continues throughout their careers and includes workshops taught by experts in the field of psychiatry,” the department told Crain’s last year. After Jeune’s death, however, the NYPD acknowledged CRIT training is moving slower than they’d like.
But will more training, a common and often politically neutral response to police controversies, change the fundamentally combustible recipe of sending armed cops into situations that a growing number voices say require non-police expertise? Three of the four cops in Jeune’s apartment received CRIT training. Gonzalez, however, had not.
The family of Dwayne Jeune at a vigil after he was killed by police
As Ms. Hale and police officers argued in front the building, Terrance, who had been pacing back and forth in the apartment, unexpectedly walked out of the lobby. He didn’t look well. “You could be right in front of him and he won’t know what you’re talking about,” she describes her son when schizophrenia takes hold. Sensing the situation might escalate, Ms. Hale pleaded with the officers to leave Terrance alone, she says. “The ambulance is not here,” she says she told her son, who by that point was unresponsive.
Terrance turned onto Third Avenue with his mother and Officers Loor and Merisme quickly following. “They started provoking my son, touching him” she says. Loor and Merisme, Ms. Hale recalls, tried surrounding her son, one of them chest-bumping him. Terrance “knows he always gets help,” she says. He was looking to see if there was an ambulance coming. “[Terrance] looked at me. I take care of him. He started to say ‘I’m going to the hospital! I’m going to the hospital!’”
Within a few seconds, Officer Loor was on the ground.
Police and prosecutors claimed Terrance intentionally stabbed Loor with a knife. Ms. Hale disputes that. She says her son wasn’t facing the officers, who were touching and pulling him, which she describes as excessive force, when Loor fell. She also says she didn’t see anything in Terrance’s hand but did see his hands go up as if to free himself from the officers. “He never went through anything like this,” she says.
With Merisme stopping to check on Loor, who was bleeding, Terrance eventually stopped walking as his mom frantically shouted “Terrance, wait, the ambulance is coming!” Her son, Ms. Hale says, “was afraid for his life.” She remembers crying as they both stopped to wait, part of her hoping the ambulance was still coming. “All of a sudden 50 officers came out from nowhere,” Ms. Hale says. Cars pulled up and cops started screaming at Terrance, some with guns drawn.
Hours later as Ms. Hale sat in the police precinct, furious about what the officers had done to escalate the situation and waiting to hear what happened to her son, two detectives walked in with a brown bag. They told Ms. Hale a knife had been found. Terrance wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.
Terrance’s indictment, conviction and 25 year prison sentence point to another consequence of police interactions with people suffering from mental health issues when they’re not being killed: punishment by the courts and abuse behind bars. Since his conviction, Terrance has been shuttled back and forth between hospitals and prisons, allegedly experiencing abuse at the hands of prison guards, while Loor has been celebrated as a hero.
“They [police] deprived him of his services,” she says, by escalating the situation and not waiting for an ambulance. “You can’t even get services when your child is suffering and you live in Harlem.”
Large rally and march in Brooklyn to protest NYPD killings of the mentally ill
For Ms. Hale and other parents, attempts to make police into makeshift mental health workers are flawed from the start because at the core still sits a cop. Police are trained and purposed to use force, often deadly. In fact, all 36,000 NYPD officer receive nearly four times as much gun training (15 days) as any of the 5,000+ CRIT-trained officers receive crisis training (four).
Not only are the results deadly, but oftentimes there is little information apart from the police version of events. Mario Ocasio, a 51-year old emotionally disturbed Bronx man, died in 2015 after police officers tasered and brutalized him, according to his family. Police confiscated a cell phone from someone who recorded the incident but that footage was allegedly erased by cops.
A few months before that, two NYPD detectives barged their way into a supportive housing program in the Lower East Side and killed 24-year old Haitian immigrant David Felix. Staff had told cops that Felix was schizophrenic. Cops claimed they had a warrant (they didn’t), refused to wait for a supervisor and then entered the housing complex despite the protests of the staff. Moments later, one of them fatally shot Felix at point blank range. Police had pursued Felix to his death over a reportedly stolen purse.
The NYPD line, predictably, was that Felix attacked. And since a call hadn’t specifically been made about an EDP – even though they were told about Felix’s condition by the staff – EDP protocols weren’t required and therefore hadn’t been violated, police said.
Demonstrators protest the police killing of David Felix in front of then-Chief, now Commissioner, James O’Neill
Terrance Hale, David Felix and many others had long been affected by the criminal justice system before the police encounters that would either kill them or put them behind bars. Both served time in Rikers Island, a well-known repository for mental illnesses whose population, some estimate, is 40% mentally ill. Both had a so-called ‘record’ that the press could highlight to refer to them as criminals first and foremost.
Ms. Hale says that police – specially trained or not – can never be the answer. “The very people we’re supposed to look up to, they betray us.” She says the people in her community are “afraid of officers.” Her son needed an ambulance and medical help. Instead he is set to serve decades in prison even after beating the top charge, which would have put him away for life.
She believes that she saved her son’s life by initially refusing to allow the responding officers to go up to her apartment. “They was gonna go up and kill my son. Today she still cries about the fact that her son, whom tabloids derided as a “madman,” was taken from her because of the actions of cops. “We wanted treatment. He came down to get treatment… It never takes two hours for an ambulance.”
Terrance Hale is still being punished. His mom says he’s been beaten by prison guards and she has sued the prison where her son was abused, Auburn Correctional Facility, as well as the EMS ambulance service that never came. Ms. Hale has also filed a habeus corpus petition to have her son released from prison as quickly as possible. She still has hope.
“Black men are being killed. Black lives matter. It shouldn’t take two hours to get services.”
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