"Voodoo Killer" was the headline on Friday's edition of a New York tabloid.
The subhead, "Crazed Mom Slays Two Tots" was not reassuring. The story was the terrible, if not rare, tale of a dangerous and deranged person and how the police dealt with her. A mother with a history of mental illness allegedly stabbed to death two small children and held a third -- a three- month-old infant -- hostage in her South Bronx apartment. While some police talked to her from the fire escape a second team lowered themselves by ropes, entered the window of a back room and disabled the woman with a new weapon: a stream of water from a fire extinguisher.
What is remarkable here is not simply the rescue of the baby and the capture of the woman unharmed but the fact that the procedures used by police differed markedly from those employed only a month ago in a similar case. Eleanor Bumpurs, a tall, 300-pound emotionally distraught woman in her mid '60s, assaulted police with a knife when they attempted to evict her. She was shot and killed. Though the officers violated no police guidelines in reacting to her attack, the case caused a storm in New York and a demand that better procedures be developed for dealing with disturbed people. Similar problems arise in this area, particularly when police have to cope with individuals who are high on PCP.
Last week the New York police demonstrated several nonlethal devices that will soon be available for handling such cases. The most imaginative, according to a New York Times article, is a robot that rolls up to the subject, politely asks "Would you like a cup of coffee?" then shoots a stream of water, or Mace, into his face. The triple distraction of the machine, the question and the spray gives the police a chance to move in. Other effective tools include nets, a bulletproof blanket, restraining devices on long handles and chemical sprayers that can pinpoint a target from across a room.
It is not possible to apply these new techniques in all situations, of course. A mentally unbalanced person who is firing a gun or holding a knife at someone's throat is not likely to be distracted by a robot. But they do provide police with a range of options short of lethal force for dealing with those who are both disturbed and potentially dangerous. The availability and encouragement of these new techniques has made a big difference in New York in a very short time. They can work here, too.