Civil rights: NY police under scrutiny for some instances of gunfire

Many New Yorkers remember the well-publicized September 2013 Times Square incident in which two innocent bystanders were shot by police. The officers had reportedly instead been aiming for a disturbed man trying to throw himself in front of cars in heavy traffic.

One of the injured bystanders, Sahar Khoshakhlagh, ironically a psychologist who works professionally with people with emotional disturbances, has publicly raised her concerns about how officers of the NYPD are trained to respond to distraught people.

The New York Times reported that the 35-year-old unarmed man for whom the shots were meant has been charged in New York state court with felony assault for the bystanders' gunshot wounds. If convicted, the defendant could serve up to 25 years in prison. The Times article says that his attorney revealed that the man has anxiety and depression and was hearing voices when he was behaving erratically in traffic that night.

The media reported widely that injured psychologist Khoshakhlagh wrote an "open letter" to new Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Police Commissioner Bill Bratton objecting to the assault charges for her injury against the man with mental illness and urging more training of NYPD officers in dealing safely with people with emotional disturbances.

Other controversial incidents

The Times Square police shooting reminds New Yorkers of a series of other recent controversial encounters between law enforcement and people behaving in ways suggesting emotional disturbance in which officers used police gunfire to deal with them. Similarly, in some of those incidents and others, the public has questioned whether law enforcement should have used deadly force in the presence of innocent bystanders, some of whom were shot.

Some victims of police gunshots, or their families if they died from their wounds, may decide to file civil rights lawsuits against the police for damages for financial losses and suffering. Legally the issues are complex, as police must adhere to federal and state law, as well as departmental guidelines, in deciding whether probable cause of likely serious harm exists that justifies the use of deadly force.

The crisis intervention team approach

In early 2014, the New York Crisis Intervention Act was introduced in the New York legislature, a law that would set up "crisis intervention team" or CIT projects in large cities. The CIT model pairs law enforcement with mental health professionals and service providers in training programs aimed at teaching officers how to deal more effectively and safely with people in crisis who have mental health or substance abuse problems, in concert with social service professionals.

Many are watching the CIT bill with keen interest, but in the meantime, issues of possible New York police brutality or police misconduct in the use of gunfire are being widely debated.

Victims should seek legal advice

Any New Yorker who has been injured, or whose loved one was killed, in a police shooting involving someone with possible emotional disturbance or as a bystander, should speak with an experienced civil rights attorney as soon as possible to understand what legal remedies are available and whether the shooting was unjustified. Time is of the essence because New York lawsuits have deadlines and procedural requirements that must be met and an early investigation on behalf of the victim can uncover important evidence.