On March 15, 2012, Shauna Francis called 311 for help with getting her little sister, Shereese, to take her schizophrenia medication.
“It was the worst nightmare, the worst news that a mother could have gotten, a sister, we could have ever faced. Never in our wildest dreams had we thought that calling for help would have led to her death. It's like I couldn't fathom it. I was in disbelief. You know?” Shauna exclusively told Inside Edition Digital.
In the more than eight years that have passed since Shereese’s death, no member of the Francis family has granted an in-depth interview, on camera or off. Shauna credits her and Shereese’s best friend, Sunshine Williams-Smith, with helping her gain the strength to recall such traumatizing memories.
Calling authorities for help was something Shereese’s family did from time to time when she refused to take her medicine. “So when they came, to my surprise, it wasn't the paramedics who came before. It was the police officers. Four officers came, and they asked me where she was, and I said, ‘Well, she's downstairs.’ So we went downstairs,” Shauna remembered.
“So she saw them and she was just, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’” Shauna said.
Both Shauna and Smith said Shereese had never been arrested or had any involvement whatsoever with law enforcement.
"The Roads Are Paved With Gold"
Shauna and Shereese’s parents moved their family to Jamaica, Queens, from Jamaica, West Indies in the 1980s.
“It was a big change. Well, of course, when you're down there, you say, ‘Oh, the land of opportunity. The roads are going to be paved with gold. Oh, you're going to foreign,’" Shauna recalled.
“I remember jokes when we were younger. Remember when she used to say, ‘Green eggs and ‘am [ham].’" Smith laughed.
Shauna’s favorite memory of her little sister was her personality.
“She was always this bubbly person. She's so cheerful. She was always putting others before herself. A lot of her friends would tell me, even after her death, they would say, ‘She would call me [at] midnight and to find out how I was doing,’ and I didn't even know she was doing all that. People always gravitated to her because she had just this beautiful smile of hers,” Shauna shared. “She was always the one that would say, Oh, I love you. Are you okay? You sure everything's okay with you?'"
“She was very magnetic. She could come into a room and light it up. If the room required a 60-watt light bulb, Shereese was the 60-watt light bulb,” Smith smiled.
“They were a package. Shauna and Shereese was a package. If you was coming for Shauna, you better be ready to talk to Shereese.”
Shauna says Shereese was diagnosed with schizophrenia in college.
She feels like it should’ve been clear to officers that they were handling what the NYPD calls an Emotionally Disturbed Person, or EDP, by the way she responded to their commands on the night the NYPD showed up at the Francis family’s home.
“They saw her, and she said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I guess they're telling her, ‘You have to go to the hospital. You have to go to the hospital,’ Shauna recalled. “She said, ‘I'm not going anywhere. You get out of my house right now. Get out of my house right now. Out!’ So she started walking to go up the stairs. By the stairs, there is a bed. She went towards the staircase, and I heard one of the officers say, ‘Don't let her go! Don't let her pass! Don't let her go up the stairs!’”
“That's when everything turned worse. They tackled her onto the bed. She ended up on the bed. She ended up face down on the bed, and the police officer was on top of her, in her back, but I was pacing back and forth, back and forth, because I trusted these police officers. I thought they knew what they were doing, so I just kept saying, ‘Shereese, please cooperate. Cooperate with the police officers. They're just trying to help you to get back to the hospital.’”
As her sister kept screaming, “Get off of me!” Shauna remembers pacing back and forth because it was so difficult to watch.
“Then, all of a sudden, it went silent. There was complete silence in the room. So then I looked, and I said, "Wait. What's going on?" She was laying there, just lifeless. They placed her on the ground. They placed her on the ground, and they started making a call by radio, but they were talking in police code, which I can't understand. I didn't know what they were saying.
Shauna says at that point, the responding officers told her and the rest of her family to leave the basement, while they performed chest compressions on Shereese.
“An hour and a half went by, and they're still down there with her. So it was night. All of a sudden, we were inside, we saw them rushing her on the stretcher, coming from the backyard,” Shauna said. “So they ran her, ran her to the ambulance. My mother-in-law ran out, and my mother-in-law touched her and she said, ‘Wait, but she's cold!’ They were like, ‘Ma'am, ma'am, you have to go. You have to go.’ So we packed our bags, ready to go to the hospital. So my aunt came with me. We all drove to Jamaica hospital, and we went into the doors, and then they told us, ‘Oh, we have to have a word with you.’ They took us into a room, and they said to us, ‘We're sorry, but there's nothing else we could have done. Your sister is gone.’”
The medical examiner ruled Shereese's death a homicide–labelling her cause of death as “compression of trunk during agitated violent behavior—schizophrenia—while prone on bed and attempted restraint by police officers.”
“A lot of what the police do is so-called EDP calls, at least in New York, that's what we call them. EDP means Emotionally Disturbed Person. I think it's an ugly and reductive term. Shereese was living with mental illness and without violence in her life,” Francis family attorney Steve Vaccaro of Vaccaro and White told Inside Edition Digital. “ In this case, however, unlike prior occasions, police came instead of an ambulance. Now, the police respond to these calls, but it is well known that they don't have the training or expertise, and in many cases, the temperament to deal with an individual who's going through a mental health crisis.”
When Inside Edition Digital asked the NYPD about their protocol when it comes to handling EDP calls, they directed us to their 2013 patrol guide, which clearly outlines the steps officers should take in such a situation. It reads in part:
“The primary duty of all members of the service is to preserve human life. The safety of ALL persons involved is paramount in cases involving emotionally disturbed persons. If such person is dangerous to himself or others, necessary force may be used to prevent serious physical injury or death. Physical force will be used ONLY to the extent necessary to restrain the subject until delivered to a hospital or detention facility. Deadly physical force will be used ONLY as a last resort to protect the life of the uniformed member of the service assigned or any other person present.”
The guide then goes into further detail, breaking the protocol down into numbered steps.
“The problem in Shereese's case tragically was that those officers didn't follow the protocol. It was as clear as clear it could be. They just didn't follow it. They didn't want to wait. Their Sergeant didn't want to come,” Vaccaro said.
“‘You get out of here. I'm going to call the cops on you.' That's what Shereese was saying to the police and that should have, even if they hadn't gotten all of that training, that should have let any reasonable person know that they were dealing with someone who on a certain level was not connected with reality. And that the thing to do was not to challenge her and start chasing her through her own home, but instead to de escalate, to put some distance between them and her and to allow people with mental health training to handle the situation. But that didn't happen,”
“I Don’t Even Care If I Live Right Now”
Shauna is two years older than Shereese, who was only 29 at the time of her death. She continues to hold the trauma from witnessing her little sister’s sudden death.
“So throughout the case, I just...I think I just went into another world,” she said.
“You detached. You were going through depression because I didn't even get to connect with her as much as I...was like, wait a minute. I would check in every once in a while with Miss Eileen, her mom, even her, and no one really wanted to talk about it,” Williams recalled.
“My father, I couldn't even go to work, he was like, ‘You have to get up, move around.’ My husband was like, ‘You have to.’ He actually said. He said, ‘You're falling into depression right now.’” Shawna stated. “At that time, I remember saying to myself, I said, ‘I don't even care if I live right now.’ Shauna revealed. “So I just suppressed everything. My doctor even says, ‘Do you want counseling?’ I even refused counseling up to now. I really feel like I need to still go to counseling because I haven't really ... This is the first time I'm actually speaking about the case and such.”
Shauna admits she was so detached, she still doesn’t even know the names of the officers involved.
“I'm sure everything is there. I don't know. I didn't go digging, asking these questions, because I just couldn't face it like up to now. This is the hardest thing for me to sit here today before you. This is the first time I've opened up. I'd always be quiet if it wasn't for Sunny here.”
Williams went to therapy after the incident, and got therapy for Shauna in 2014. Shauna never went.
“No, I never took therapy. I just didn't want to talk about it. The only thing, I just try to pray and say the Lord got to help me to just deal with things that I can't change. So that's what's been keeping me. No, I've never been to any therapy,” Shauna admitted.
Now, she says she is getting ready to take that step.
“I will consider. At this time, you know that I'm talking, and I was talking it over with Sunny, and she said, ‘You really should get therapy.’”
“My anxiety about Shereese was different. Yours comes from you think you could have done something, and it's not your fault. I say that on and off record. It is not your fault. Police were supposed to protect and serve, and mental illness is not a crime. It is a disease. So they were supposed to not do any of the things that they did, so you just need your therapy the best way you can get it, and then deal with it that way,” Williams said.
The Repeal of 50a
“The end of the day, we didn't get that much evidence out of the police, but everything we got out of them added up to it was the police's fault. They didn't follow the rules they were supposed to follow and Shereese had died as a result,” Vaccaro told Inside Edition Digital. “It ended up becoming a negotiation over a very large sum of money that would be paid to the family. Ultimately, I think the family just wanted to move on. We had tried to use it as a teaching moment. If you look and do a search, you'll see that we were out there in front of One Police Plaza, holding multiple demonstrations for police accountability at the time, trying to get the police to open up about their sources of information and evidence.”
Inside Edition Digital reached out to the NYPD in regards to Shereese's case.
They confirm all of the cops involved are all still active members of the force.
They would not specify in what capacity and told us to file a request through New York State’s Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL, in order to obtain their background information and to find out what, if any disciplinary action was ever taken against those officers in Shereese’s case or others.
We did, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FOIL requests are backlogged and that information won’t be available at least until the end of the year.
In June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a historic bill into law repealing 50a — which bans chokeholds and now allows police misconduct records to be revealed to the public.
“The repeal of 50a is important. Back in 2013, when we were litigating Shereese's case, we weren't able to find out whether those officers who killed her, whether this is the first time they had killed or the tenth. This is something that no legitimate government employees union, that's supposed to be about service to the public, ought to be engaged in hiding this kind of misconduct in a way that can allow it to recur over and over and over again,” Vaccaro sstated.
A separate website called Capstat, which began as a demonstration project collected data from several sources — payroll information from NYCs open data portal, FOIL requests, reports of disciplinary summaries and federal lawsuits filed in New York’s Southern and Eastern districts from January 2015 to June 2018.
It does not provide full background or disciplinary data on NYPD members.
According to Capstat, one of the officers was named in a 2014 lawsuit that claims he was one of the cops who assaulted a man after a traffic stop. That case was settled with the city for $145,000.
He was also named in another lawsuit, where that case was settled for more than $16,000.
Two others have since been promoted to sergeant, another was moved to the mounted unit.
None of the officers appeared in a new database published by ProPublica, which is comprised of complaints from the Civilian Complaint Review Board, or CCRB — an organization that investigates allegations of police misconduct.
Inside Edition Digital also reached out to New York's Sergeants Benevolent Association, Police Benevolent Association and the CCRB for comment.
The CCRB was the only agency to respond, writing in part, quote, “We are currently barred from sharing this information (even through foil) due to ongoing litigation around what information we can release...but I can assure you we will work on it in the meantime and release it when it is legally acceptable to do so.”
Justice for Shereese
“I know what those other families are going through right now. I know what George Floyd's family is going through, Eric Garner. I know the pain, so just to have people out there...I said, ‘Not another one again.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, I suppressed this, and I kept silent for all these years.’ I said, ‘My silence is not going to make a difference. I need to speak up now. I need to be a part.’"
Shauna and Williams are pushing forward with what justice looks like for Shereese now.
“Well, justice for Shereese looks like the Shereese Francis Act being passed. That is a bill that Shauna and I have come together to write. It's actually a police reform bill. It would change the narrative of how police officers are engaging with mentally ill people period,” Williams started.
The Shereese Francis Act would mandate the NYPD be banned from engaging with anyone with mental health issues without a qualified psychiatrist. That psychiatrist would have to have an extensive background of treatment for people with diagnoses including bipolar disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorders.
“We don't want any more knees in the back. We're sick of it. We're sick of the knees in the back. There's a death. The death has affected both of us, and at this point, this bill needs to be passed to not only protect mentally ill but to protect black and brown people period, and to stop police officers from using violence by law enforcement,” Williams continued.
“We want to see [that] my sister's death was not taken in vain. We want to see something good come out of it. If I could ask her right now, ‘Shereese, what would you want done? I'm sure the other families can. I'm sure if they asked them the same thing. What would you want to see done because you're no longer here, but through your death, what do you want us to do for you?’ She would say, 'Make a difference.'"