On September 25th, 2012, police shot and killed 28-year-old Mohamed Bah, after his mother called 911 for medical assistance because she was concerned he was having a mental health crisis. A year later, a grand jury ruled that the Emergency Service Unit (ESU) officers were justified in Bah's killing, but his family's attorneys have alleged that the NYPD is trying to cover up its officers' misconduct, and are suing the City and the officers involved.
That case has been inching along in federal court for the past three years, but according to a recent court order that the family's attorneys hope will bring the case to trial, the City unsealed previously confidential documents that reveal ESU officers violated protocol that day by breaking into Bah's apartment without approval from the duty captain, as it had been deemed that Bah was contained and not an immediate threat.
One of the unsealed documents is the NYPD's internal investigative report, which details the department's version of the series of events leading up to Bah's killing. It states that Bah's mother, Hawa Bah, arrived in New York on September 24th to visit her son, but when he didn't pick her up from the airport as initially planned, she went to his apartment in Harlem. There, she found him unkempt and thinner than the last time she'd seen him; he wouldn't let her clean a urine stain on his bed, and was saying things that indicated he thought he was someone other than himself, according to the report.
The next day, Bah's mother returned to his building and called 911, hoping that dispatchers would send an ambulance to help her bring her son to a hospital where he could be evaluated and treated. Instead, police arrived, and even though her lawyers say she told them that she'd asked for an ambulance, not police, the officers told her that they had to evaluate the situation. They subsequently called for ESU backup.
It's here that the NYPD's version of events differs from what Bah's family's lawyers have found in their discovery process. The NYPD report states that when officers knocked on the door, Bah opened it just enough to show that he was wielding a 10-inch knife, and that when ESU officers breached the top of the door to insert a pole camera so that they could monitor Bah inside, he opened the door all the way and began lunging at them with his knife. According to the NYPD's report, he stabbed at the officers' vests and abdomens, at which point police fired ten shots at him, ultimately killing him.
But the family's lawyers argue that it's not at all clear that Bah opened the door, nor is it clear that he was in fact brandishing a knife—the NYPD claims that the alleged weapon, as well as one of the officers' shirts, was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy.
"The only crime Bah committed at that point was being black, Muslim, and having a mental health crisis," said Debra Cohen, one of the family's attorneys. "There was no legal justification to bust through his door."
The family's lawyers also believe that when one officer shouted, "He's stabbing me, shoot him!", that officer had in fact been inadvertently tasered by another cop—something that the NYPD's report only alludes to by saying that the lead wires of the taser "made contact with" one of the officers.
What both the NYPD and the family's attorneys can agree on, as revealed in these newly unsealed documents, is that ESU Lieutenant Michale Licitra never should have partially breached the door in the first place to insert the camera: the internal investigation notes that "as Mr. Bah was isolated and contained, there was no rush to make contact with him," and that "according to department guidelines, the duty captain should have been conferred with prior to making such a decision."
These documents also reveal that Licitra's only sanction for breaching protocol—which Bah's family's lawyers argue set off the chain of events that led to a mentally unstable man's unwarranted killing—was a letter from his commanding officer instructing him to refamiliarize himself with the department's procedures for dealing with mentally ill or disturbed people. The NYPD declined to comment on the documents, but confirmed that Licitra is still employed by the department.
A spokesperson for the City Law Department said that the extent to which that Letter of Instruction may be taken into account as the lawsuit proceeds "is a legal issue for the court and is not determinative of the City's civil liability. It is for the court to determine separately whether Mr. Bah's constitutional rights were violated."
In the ongoing lawsuit, Bah's family and their attorneys are asking for $70 million in damages and want the city to change how the NYPD responds to the more than 100,000 calls for emotionally disturbed persons (EDPs) that it receives each year. Specifically, they note that the "Memphis Model" of de-escalation training, implemented after an officer in Memphis fatally shot a mentally lil person, has successfully reduced the number of injuries and deaths resulting from EDP calls in other municipalities.
"The ultimate tragedy is that Mohamed Bah is dead when his mother was simply calling for medical help," Cohen said. "But what's also a tragedy is how many people are going to die in the future because the NYPD is more interested in covering up mistakes by ESU officers than finding ways to better deal with what we acknowledge are difficult situations."
You can read the full NYPD internal report here: