In 1998, Kevin Cerbelli went to a New York City police precinct station with a knife and a screwdriver. He stabbed an officer with the screwdriver, the New York Times says, but the officer’s bulletproof vest blocked it. As he walked around the lobby, raving incoherently, officers surrounded him, pistols drawn, shouting for him to drop the weapons. The loose circle that officers formed is what the textbook calls a “zone of safety.” Officers opened fire, killing Cerbelli and wounding a lieutenant. Cerbelli’s mother, Loretta, sued the Police Department. She wants the department to change the zone of safety, a buffer zone used by officers in the handling of what are known as emotionally disturbed persons, or EDPs. “There isn’t training in existence about safeguarding people’s lives or dealing with them with anything other than bullets,” Mrs. Cerbelli said. “We’re like in the medieval times.”
The lawsuit questions one of the most dangerous parts of police work, when an officer must decide in seconds whether to shoot, whether a deranged man with a weapon is a threat to the officer, the officer’s partner, others or himself. The department deals with a disturbed person about every six and a half minutes.
The lawsuit comes in a year of overhaul in the department’s training of officers. The patrol curriculum now includes role-playing, with officers dressing up and yelling in hallways and stairwells, and instructors off to the side, grading recruits’ response to a domestic call, a disorderly man on the street, someone urinating in the street. The changes in training were begun by the department independent of the litigation.
This year, the department rewrote its training manuals to combine what had been three separate chapters dealing with EDP’s. The revisions included recommendations from outside doctors, experts, and advocates for the mentally ill. James J. Fyfe, the deputy commissioner for training, said the department needed to simplify and clarify its training. “The N.Y.P.D., in my view, has always done it right, except they haven’t codified it in one document,” said Fyfe, a former police lieutenant who returned to the department last year after 20 years researching police practices and serving as an expert witness in use-of-force trials, almost always testifying against officers. “I don’t know of anyplace that teaches patrol cops as much as we do.”
The department’s training has evolved with the growth of the mentally ill population since the 1960’s, when institutions began releasing more and more patients. “They called them psychos then,” said John S. Pritchard 3d, a former first deputy commissioner.