The police are ostensibly there to protect and serve us, especially America’s most vulnerable citizens. But in a cruel and ironic twist, it is usually those in most need of protection who find themselves dead following their encounters with a police force that is wholly unqualified to do anything but knock heads.
That much was made clear on Sunday when a nosey neighbor called the NYPD on George Zapantis, a 29-year-old Queens man with bipolar disorder, and told the cops Zapantis had a gun. Other, less sadistic neighbors told the NY Daily News that Zapantis had been in his basement dressed as a gladiator and playing with a samurai sword, simply enjoying himself and not bothering anyone.
When the cops arrived, they said they found no gun but a sword-wielding Zapantis. When Zapantis allegedly refused to drop the sword, the police tased him and tried to arrest him. While the police attempted to escort the now unarmed Zapantis outside the residence, he began to struggle.
Video shot by a neighbor shows them shocking him a second time with the 50,000 volt Taser with his back turned to the officers, his hands behind his back, while four or five officers screamed at him. That neighbor, Rickey Noble, told the Daily News that he was yelling at the cops that Zapantis had mental health issues, but he was ignored. “I told the officers he’s got mental health (issues), he takes medicine. I was yelling at the officers that he was (mentally ill), and they were still tasing him. Just handcuff him and walk him out,” said Noble.
Zapantis then suffered a cardiac arrest in an ambulance and died at New York-Presbyterian Queens. His death is yet another of the countless instances in which the most pedestrian of encounters with police leads to the needless death of an upstanding citizen.
“I’m crying because I was not here for my son in his last moments, and he died in such a horrible way. He was my left hand, my son. He was everything … He died for no reason” cried his mother, Athanasia Zapantis, who told the press that the neighbor had long hated her son and was allegedly clapping while the police were killing him. Zapantis was known around the building for taking care of his 33-year-old sister with Down’s syndrome and for sharing delicious Greek food with his neighbors.
What crime Mr. Zapantis had committed and why he was being arrested at all is still unclear.
Zapantis’ family attorney has demanded a public investigation into the incident. “We want to view the body cam footage and any potential videos or witness statements they may have in order to confirm their accusation that Mr. Zapantis was armed and that their use of the Taser…was justified,” said attorney George Vomvolakis to Gothamist.
The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division has launched a probe, but the results of any internal police investigation are almost certainly foregone conclusions that inevitably exonerate the police of any wrongdoing.
Having deprived all other social services of desperately needed funds and resources in order to fuel the gargantuan police department budget, American society, rather unreasonably, asks its police officers to pick up the slack. They are expected to be social workers, mental health aides, family mediators in addition to “law enforcement” while receiving almost no training to do anything but fire a gun.
That is why mentally ill Americans are sixteen times more likely to die in an encounter with the police and are the victims in anywhere from one quarter to a half of all fatal police shootings. Had the police bothered to call a social worker, the situation could have been easily de-escalated and an innocent man would still be alive.
We owe it to George Zapantis and all those innocents killed by police to take a sledgehammer to the police department budget and start spending that money on services designed to help people and improve their lives and address the root causes of crime instead of on an army of jackbooted thugs who constantly get away with murder.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.