The ‘Dehumanizing’ Experience of ‘Body Bag’ Arrests Only Widens Gap Between NYPD and Mentally Ill Victims

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Post via YouTube
Post via YouTube

Critics are outraged over the New York Police Department’s use of “body bags” as a restraint device.

A passerby witnessed the disturbing policy up close and uploaded a recording to YouTube in March. The video shows an African-American man on the ground near a subway stop, wrists tied behind his back and legs secured by tape. Surrounding NYPD officers proceed to inch the man into a long bag, zipping it up over his face.

The uploader, clearly stunned by the event, can be heard saying, “This is the craziest s–t I’ve ever seen done to somebody in my whole f–king life. Holy s–t. What do you call that thing?”

“Never in my life have I seen anything like this. What the f–k is wrong with you people? There’s a man in that bag like an animal,” the man said.

The restraining device is known as an EDP bag and one officers use to subdue an individual deemed to be emotionally disturbed.

“[The NYPD] uses the device when an EDP is violent and may cause harm to themselves or others. The bag is ventilated and they can breathe,” a spokeswoman for the NYPD said at the time.

DeSantis, the manufacturer that developed the bags for police, calls the bag a “modern straightjacket reinvented.” The online product description touts the device as a “durable” solution for New York officers “familiar with the unfortunate routine of bringing in an emotionally-disturbed person (EDP) to the psychiatric emergency room or temporarily to a holding cell.” The bag features seven handles to evenly distribute body weight and is made out of a strong, mesh material that allows bodily fluids to pass. “DeSantis’ bag is easy to clean and disinfect after each use,” the site reads.

Johnell Muhammad, the man in the video, was suspected of failing to pay subway fare and became violent with officers during the arrest, kicking, spitting and flailing his arms, according to a recent New York Times article. A criminal complaint states Muhammad elbowed one officer in the head and injured another attempting to restrain him. He faces felony assault.

The Times reports the practice is commonplace and has been used by the NYPD 122 times between January 1 and April 20 of this year — more than once daily.

Carla Rabinowitz is an advocacy coordinator for Community Access, a New York-based support organization for people living with mental illness. She told the Times the narrow confines of the bag serve to further distress an already anxious individual.

“Use of such restraint traumatizes a person in emotional distress and exacerbates the condition and experience of the crisis for the individual,” Rabinowitz said. “It is a dehumanizing tactic, and promotes stigma against people with mental health issues.”

Mental health status is becoming increasingly relevant in interactions between Black Americans and police.

In December 2015, Kevin Matthews, an unarmed Black man with a history of schizophrenia, was gunned down by an off-duty officer in Dearborn, Michigan.

In Georgia, Anthony Hill, 27, also unarmed and a U.S. army veteran, was killed on March 9, 2015, while wandering naked due to a reaction to his bipolar disorder medication.

Los Angeles native Ezell Ford, described by family members as bipolar and schizophrenic, was fatally shot by LAPD officers who said the 25-year-old reached for an officer’s gun in August 2014.

The Washington Post compiled and published a database of every fatal shooting by a police officer in the United States in 2015 and found that of the 462 people shot to death in the first six months of the year, one-quarter had mental or emotional disorders. And in most cases, the shooting officer was not responding to a reported crime but to calls by relatives, neighbors or onlookers who believed the person was behaving abnormally.

Surveys show that the general public perceives those suffering with mental illnesses to be inherently violent. According to a 2006 national survey, 60 percent of Americans think people with schizophrenia are likely to act violently toward someone else, and 32 percent think people with major depression are likely to as well. But multiple research studies have shown the connection to be false.

The American Psychological Association completed a study of crimes committed by offenders with major mental disorders in 2014 and found only 7.5 percent directly related to symptoms of mental illness.

“When we hear about crimes committed by people with mental illness, they tend to be big headline-making crimes so they get stuck in people’s heads,” Jillian Peterson, Normandale Community College psychology professor and the study’s lead researcher said. “The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, not criminal and not dangerous.”

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1.2 million people with mental illnesses are in jails or prisons and they are also on probation or parole at a rate two to four times higher than the general public.

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