Did police officers need to use deadly force on the 'hammer attacker'?


At approximately 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, a 30-year-old black man named David Baril was shot in the arm and torso by police near Penn Station in New York City. Police say they recognized David as the “hammer attacker” who attacked four people on Monday. The police approached him.

Footage of the incident released by the NYPD shows David running after one of two police officers and then falling to the ground. According to the NYPD, four shots were fired. DNA Info reported on Wednesday that David’s condition was stable.

I went to middle school with David from 1996 to 1999 at Manhattan East, a tiny public school right next to the FDR Drive in East Harlem. I don’t remember much about David from those years except that he was a bit of an outcast.

In 2012 David put up a photo on Facebook of our sixth grade class, 6N, and a few of us who were tagged in the photo reminisced about middle school in the comments below. Putting the picture up was a was a nice gesture, and I appreciated it. David did not comment on the photo.

I hadn’t seen David in person for many years. But that same year, a good friend of mine from middle school announced a fundraiser on Facebook, an event all her Facebook friends could see. David showed up that night and we were reintroduced. Our reunion was, I remember, a bit odd. He said something – I can’t remember precisely what – to make me feel uneasy, and I gently told him I needed to refill my drink and walked away.

Three separate girlfriends from middle school told me David sent them a number of Facebook messages around the same time as the fundraiser that made them so uncomfortable that two of the three women blocked him on the social networking site.

“He asked me where my father worked,” was the reason one girlfriend who asked not to be named gave for blocking David on Facebook.

According to NBC New York, David has schizophrenia and has lived in a mental health facility. None of us from Manhattan East were aware of David’s diagnosis.

The details of what occurred between NYPD officers and David Baril are still being determined. But the incidence of law enforcement shootings involving people with mental illness is sordid. A New York Times story cites figures from the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff’s Association, “based on informal studies and accounts,” that about half of people shot and killed by police have mental health issues. There is, however, no official tracking of shootings involving mentally ill persons by police.

In February Rachel Aviv reported a story for the New Yorker about a young man named Christian from Albuquerque, New Mexico with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by police.  “In the five years before Christopher’s death, the Albuquerque Police Department shot thirty-eight people, killing nineteen of them. More than half were mentally ill,” wrote Aviv.

On Wednesday, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said, without flinching, that the officers acted professionally and heroically. But according to the New York Times the officers were aware of David’s mental illness as they approached him. And the question must be asked: Even if he does survive, if in fact the police officers knew the man they were approaching was mentally ill, did they have to apply deadly force?

Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.

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