In late December, 2014, a mentally ill Colonie, New York young man was shot in a confrontation with NY State Police after a long car chase. His family is now suing the State for $10 million for a wide range of offenses-ranging from negligence, failure to provide services, false arrest, use of excessive force, etc.
Messina family attorney, Brad Gerstman, highlights a litany of state failures:
“The mentally ill are not getting the proper care in NY State and confrontations with the police are inevitable. This is a double-edged problem: Better care at the front end means fewer police confrontations at the back end. In New York, the failures are across the board.”
Michael Messina was an extremely afflicted 19 year old whose family tried-in vain- getting him the appropriate mental health treatment for his assorted ailments. A wide range of NY State mental health agencies ignored Michael’s mother’s pleas for help.
As the Complaint highlights:
“Michael’s mother and family members repeatedly requested help from the State for his needs and continuously called State agents requesting services. The State neglected and failed to provide services for Michael or come to his aid. The State neglected to help Michael despite the State’s knowledge of his severe psychiatric condition, special needs, and urgent circumstances.”
At various times during the car chase Michael’s mother, Renee Chandler, reminded the police about her son’s severe mental problems-something that the authorities had been acutely made aware of in the past. Her fear was that her son was trying to commit “suicide by cop” since his belief was that if he himself committed suicide he would “go to hell.”
As the Complaint goes on to point out:
“During the chase, Michael’s mother Renee Chandler, spoke with Police and informed them that Michael has severe mental health issues, diagnosed as bipolar disorder, emotional disturbances, PTSD, along with learning disabilities, which they also already knew… The authorities were on notice of Michael’s conditions and knew of his mental health status and that he had been hospitalized more than six times related to several suicide attempts.”
Making the history of neglect of Michael Messina even worse is the behavior of the police during and after the car chase. The NY State Police Department failed to have proper protocols in place that would have guided the front line officers so that their conduct would not have resulted in the shooting of Messina. If the State police do actually have department guidelines, this makes their conduct even worse, since the department clearly failed to insure their proper implementation in the Messina case.
Having failed to do so, the police compounded their error by fabricating what happened while informing Ms. Chandler of her son’s hospitalization-claiming that it was a result of a car accident. As seen in the Department’s press release, there is no acknowledgement of Michael’s mental health illnesses-indicative of its cover-up strategy. (https://www.nyspnews.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=42576)
The Messina case dramatizes the abysmal state of mental health services in NY State and the similarly poor nature of how police in New York are not trained properly in confronting the mentally ill. Both areas are badly in need of reform so that other Michael Messinas’ in the state can get the help they need. (http://www.popcenter.org/problems/mental_illness/)
With more and more people with mental illnesses being processed through the justice system-and with our prisons becoming the largest mental hospitals all over the country-we are clearly badly in need of vigorous and proper training of the law enforcement authorities. Sadly, in the case of Michael Messina, that was sorely missing. (http://www.jaapl.org/content/35/4/406.full)
Mr. Gerstman, of Gerstman Schwartz & Malito, LLP, is an attorney and advocate for individuals with special needs. He currently acts as both co-founder and board member of the Lisa Beth Gerstman Foundation, a family foundation that provides summer camp experiences to children with physical and developmental disabilities. In the past, He has also served as the Long Island Advocacy Chair for Autism Speaks, one of the nation’s largest autism advocacy organizations, as well as Advocacy Chair on the 2007 Long Island Walk Now for Autism Planning Committee.