In the video, five men are huddled on top of the body of Johnell Muhammad, who is laying on a busy New York City sidewalk. His head is tilted to one side, and his legs are bound together with orange straps. His arms are tied behind his back.
Then, in an instant, something strange happens. The police officers lift Muhammad and place him onto a white cloth. Holding his arms and legs, they keep him centered on the cloth and zip it up. Muhammad's head is now wrapped up inside what looks to be a body bag. Only his feet are sticking out as officers walk away from the scene, carrying him inside.
"You got a name for that?" asks the anonymous man who videotaped the encounter. "Whatever that body bag kind of thing you just put a human being in, like he's a fucking animal?"
The emergence of this expletive-laden video has caused a stir in New York's mental health community since it was uploaded in March. The mentally ill or otherwise emotionally disabled are already stigmatized enough, these experts say—why wrap them in body bags in public view?
Advocates are also wondering where the hell these devices came from. The New York Times reported that the videotaped incident was not actually as rare an event as it might have seemed. The New York City Police Department confirmed with Fusion that the bags, known as a "mesh restraining device," have been used a total of 122 times from the beginning of January through April 20 of this year.
That comes out to a rate of nearly once a day. Separately, the department claims that it has been using the bags for nearly 25 years. The bags are used "to safely and effectively restrain violent or potentially violent emotionally disturbed persons who are at risk to potentially harm themselves, members of the public and/or police officers and emergency medical personnel," reads a statement from the police department.
All of this comes as a big surprise for people who spend their careers tracking this stuff.
"The NYPD says they've been using it for 25 years; I don't believe it," Carla Rabinowitz, an advocacy coordinator for Community Access, an NYC-based mental health group, told Fusion. "Or if that's true, then they're using it much more often now."
Her group has been working with the NYPD to give officers classes in Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), a framework and policing tactic that calls on officers to de-escalate potentially volatile situations with the mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. (The mentally ill are, among other things, more likely to be killed by police during heated interactions. CIT training aims to cool down those situations and get people the treatment they need before dragging them into the justice system in handcuffs.)
By Rabinowitz' measure, and by that of Community Access' CEO Steve Coe, the department has been making strides in the area.
"That's why [the use of the bags is] shocking and appalling," said Rabinowitz. "It's just overkill. It's the polar opposite of what is going on in CIT."
In a phone call, Amy C. Watson, an associate professor at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leading researcher on Crisis Intervention Training, told me that she hadn't heard about the device or the tactic until the video was posted online.
"I haven't seen it being used anywhere else," she said. "I've done a little searching and there's not much literature on the subject."
Sometimes restraints need to be used to transport the emotionally unstable, Watson noted. "But if the bags are being used as a go-to, that would be disturbing," she said.
On an online marketplace where manufacturer DeSantis Gunhide sells the bags, they are described as having been "originally developed for the Emergency Service Unit of the NYPD."
"We developed the bag because we knew they were already using something like that," Gene DeSantis, the company's CEO, told me in a phone call. "These bags have been out there for a good long time. We have been producing them for five, six years."
Reading an email from a police department he neglected to identify, DeSantis read me a piece of feedback he recently got from an officer who used the bag. The feedback noted that a suicidal subject "calmed down within minutes," adding that "[the department's] chief still wants a how-to video for our other officers." DeSantis says the video is currently in production, and that more bags will soon be coming to other police departments.
"One thing that should be clear is that this is not an escalation of force. This is to subdue and transport the [emotionally disturbed person]," he said.
The NYPD declined to give more details about the history of the department's use of the bags or its specific policy on how they are used.
"I had never heard of this before the video," said Wendy Brennan, executive director of New York City's National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) branch. "We think that the use is very disturbing, and it is potentially very traumatizing to people who they use it on."
But, she said, the organization is still in the information gathering process regarding what its actual policy will be towards the bags. Brennan has talked with police about the topic "more than once," she said, but it's still not clear what the department's' criteria for using the bag is, what kind of training is provided to officers who deploy it, etcetera.
"It can't be very widespread," she said. "They say they've used it for over 25 years, yet we barely just heard of it a few weeks ago."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.