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Monday, December 9, 2013

New York City Police Shoot Two Bystanders

     On September 14, 2013, a mentally ill man from Brooklyn, New York named Glenn Broadnax created a disturbance at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue near Times Square in Manhattan. The 250-pound 35-year-old disrupted traffic by putting himself in the path of passing vehicles. Broadnax escalated his public disturbance when he resisted attempts by officers to pull him out of harms way. During the encounter, Broadnax reached into his pants pocket for his wallet. Fearing that he was going for a gun, two police officers shot at the mentally disturbed and distraught citizen. The bullets missed Mr. Broadnax but wounded two female pedestrians. As it turned out, Mr. Broadnax was reaching for his wallet. He was unarmed. A police sergeant, not wanting to fire his gun in a place crowded with people, subdued the subject with a Taser.

     At Bellevue Hospital Center where he was taken for psychiatric observation, Mr. Broadnax told a detective that he had been "talking to dead relatives in his head." The obviously mentally ill man said that by putting himself into the path of moving vehicles he was trying to kill himself.

     As the authorities booked Mr. Broadnax into jail on the misdemeanor charges of menacing, drug possession, and resisting arrest, the two officers who shot at him were placed on administrative duty pending an internal inquiry. The women who had been shot were treated for their gunshot wounds at a nearby hospital. They were both expected to survive.

     A Manhattan prosecutor, perhaps worried about the public relations ramifications of this police involved shooting, decided to upgrade the charges against Mr. Broadnax. Pursuant to the truism that a prosecutor has the power and discretion to indict a ham sandwich, the assistant district attorney talked a Manhattan grand jury into indicting the mentally ill man, in relation to the two wounded women, with felony assault. Mr. Broadnax, according to the wording of his indictment, had recklessly engaged in conduct which created a grave risk of death." Further, "the defendant was the one who created the situation that injured the innocent bystanders." If convicted of the assault, Mr. Broadnax faced a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison.

     The Broadnax grand jury, instead of looking into the actions of an unarmed, mentally unstable man trying to kill himself, should have been contemplating the conduct of the two hair-trigger police officers who fired into a crowd. The "risk of death" in this case had been created by the police.

     On January 8, 2014, Sahar Khoshakhlagh, one of the women who took a police bullet, wrote an open letter about the incident to New York mayor de Blasio. She called for better police training in the handling of mentally ill people. Officers should not, she wrote, shoot at people "indiscriminately." The 38-year-old Iranian-born mental health care worker said the following about Mr. Broadnax: "This man could possibly go to jail. That weighed heavily on my conscience. He didn't do anything to me. He needs help."

     The Broadnax case illustrates a major shift in priority over the past thirty years in American law enforcement. During an earlier era, a time when crime rates were much higher, citizen safety came first, officer safety second. Today, in our highly militarized policing, the cop/warrior's safety is priority. Citizens suspected of crimes are treated as enemy combatants rather than people merely under suspicion. Moreover, police officers now presume that everyone is armed and dangerous. One furtive move and a person will be shot.

     

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