“Please don’t shoot,” Notan Eva Costa, a 48-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant living in Queens, begged the two New York City police officers who entered her home after her teenage son called 911.

Lying on the floor, the mother of two stretched her hand out to the officers, terror and distress audible in her voice.

It was too late. One of the police officers fired his gun at least four times, fatally wounding 19-year-old Win Rozario. Less than two minutes had passed since police entered the family’s home.
Win Rozario was shot dead by police after they responded to a call at his home in Queens, New York. (Justice Committee)

The officers “killed my son in minutes,” Costa said through an interpreter at a Wednesday news conference. “Before they came, everything was calm. Then they came and created chaos and murdered him in front of me.”

In the weeks since Rozario’s death, the shooting has attracted scrutiny from social justice and mental health advocates, particularly after the state attorney general’s office released footage from body cameras worn by the two responding officers and announced it is investigating the case.

Critics say the police’s use of lethal force was unnecessary and reflects a pattern of violence against people with mental illness. In a news release, the NYPD said it was “fully co-operating” with the investigation as well as conducting its own probe, adding, “we continually seek to improve how we respond to requests for assistance, and we acknowledge that there is much work to be done. New Yorkers expect and deserve nothing less.”

Police bodycam footage shows one of the officers Taser Rozario as his mother tries to shield him and take away a pair of scissors. (Supplied)

The two officers are on “modified assignment,” meaning they’re still working but not carrying firearms or shields. Rozario’s family, as well as local organisations such as the Justice Committee and Desis Rising Up and Moving, have called for the officers to be fired and prosecuted.

They also have goals far beyond penalising the officers who killed Rozario. They’re calling for New York City to radically shift its approach to responding to people in crisis. Rather than sending armed police officers to respond to every 911 call, they envision a world where trained mental health responders could respond to people experiencing crises, helping to de-escalate tense situations and connect patients with health care.

Mental health crisis intervention programs have already been implemented in cities such as Eugene, Oregon, and Denver, Colorado, as well as across 23 counties in South Dakota and elsewhere across the country. In New York, a similar but limited pilot program called “B-Heard” dispatches EMTs and trained mental health responders to some emergency calls.

The confrontation grew increasingly violent in just two minutes. (Supplied)

Speaking through a translator in front of dozens of supporters holding images of Rozario, his mother described her son as a “quiet and polite” teenager who dreamed of one day joining the military “because he wanted to do something for this country”. He loved to cook for his mother and help her with her beading handicrafts, she recalled.

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“That is who the police stole from us,” she said, tearing up at times as she described her son. “I tried to protect my son. I begged the police not to shoot, but the police still killed him.”

“Win Rozario would be alive today if the NYPD had already been removed from mental health,” said Loyda Colón, executive director of the Justice Committee, at a news conference last week.

Two minutes, four gunshots, and a young life cut short

Rozario was in the throes of an apparent mental health crisis when he called 911 on March 27.

“He’s having an episode,” his younger brother, Utsho, told the two police officers who arrived. “He don’t even know what he’s doing, to be honest.”

In the apartment, the officers found Rozario standing in the kitchen with his mother nearby. When an officer moved towards the kitchen, Rozario seemed to become distressed and picked up a pair of kitchen scissors, which his mother tried to take from his hand.

Rozario moved towards the officers again with the scissors, prompting one officer to fire a Taser at him and the other to draw his gun. Rozario’s mother clutched him as an officer shouted, “let go of him and back up,” and appeared to fire a Taser again at the teenager, who collapsed to the floor.

Rozario was just 19 when he was killed in the police shooting. (Justice Committee)

Rozario’s mother then moved away from him and towards officers, holding the scissors. She walked back to Rozario, seemingly trying to comfort him, prompting an officer to yell, “Tell her to get the f— out of the way!”

“Don’t shoot,” she said to the officers. An officer again fired a Taser at Rozario, who grabbed the scissors and again moved towards the officers. Utsho moved in and all three family members held each other as the officers continued to shout for them to get out of the way.

Rozario’s mother and brother both fell to the floor. Rozario was standing and holding the scissors, seemingly several feet away from the officers, when one officer appeared to begin shooting at him. He fell to the floor after multiple shots.

Rozario’s family are seeking justice over his death. (Justice Committee)

Colón said the footage showed the responding officers “recklessly escalated the situation multiple times,” endangering Rozario’s mother and brother as well.

“They had multiple opportunities to de-escalate, to detain, and they did not do that,” Colón said. Officers shouted “put it down” multiple times at Rozario but did not otherwise talk to him during the body camera footage.

“There was no danger happening at all, until those officers arrived with their guns,” the family’s attorney said at the news conference.

Michael Alcazar, a retired NYPD detective and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told CNN he saw multiple ways the officers could have possibly avoided shooting Rozario. Before entering the home or when Rozario’s mother took the scissors from him, they could have asked his mother and brother to leave the apartment, leaving just Rozario inside, and then called emergency services. This is consistent with the “isolate and contain” protocol NYPD advises officers to use when dealing with “mentally ill or emotionally disturbed persons”.

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Additionally, the officers could have used non-lethal weapons, such as nightsticks, to gain control of Rozario and take the scissors away, according to Alcazar.

Another vision for crisis intervention

Rozario wasn’t the first New Yorker to die at the hands of police while experiencing a mental health crisis. Community Access, a non-profit supporting people with mental health concerns in New York, says at least 26 New Yorkers experiencing mental health crises have been shot and killed by police since 2007.

Situations involving “emotionally disturbed persons” are the second most common situation in which police officers use force, according to the NYPD’s 2022 use of force report. Officers used force in 1740 encounters with emotionally disturbed persons in 2022, the report showed. The report does not include data on lethal force used against emotionally disturbed persons.

The NYPD told CNN they respond to approximately 155,000 “emergency calls involving people in the throes of an emotional or mental health crisis” each year. Fewer than 1 per cent of those calls result in police using any form of force and fewer involve deadly force, the NYPD reports.

Although they are uncommon, deaths such as those of Rozario, Kawaski Trawick, Deborah Danner, and Mohamed Bah have drawn scrutiny to the dangers of using police to respond to people experiencing acute crisis, and what an alternative system of support might look like.

In Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, for instance, specialised crisis responders and medics have responded to crisis calls for more than 30 years through a mobile intervention program called CAHOOTS, an acronym for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets”. The program diverts between 3 per cent and 8 per cent of calls which would otherwise be handled by police, according to the Eugene Police Department, including providing care for people who are “intoxicated, mentally ill, or disoriented”.

Jeremy Gates, the executive director of the White Bird Clinic, which runs CAHOOTS, told CNN part of the program’s success lies in the trust its responders have built with clients over the years.

“People will call and say, I don’t want the police, I want CAHOOTS,” he said.

And in Colorado, one former deputy was convicted of reckless endangerment, another pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and six other officers are currently facing charges for shooting and killing a man experiencing a mental health crisis, a similar program called Support Team Assisted Response, known as STAR, operates in Denver.

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“We respond in a trauma-informed and empathetic manner,” STAR Program Specialist Evan Thompkins told CNN in an interview. “We come in a kind and caring way, where we can kind of meet people where they’re at, really get down on their level and provide more of a non-authoritarian approach.”

He noted for some people and communities, just the presence of uniformed police members can cause a situation to “escalate.” Some “communities are afraid of the police and don’t want to interact with the police,” he said.

Fountain House, a non-profit providing support for people living with serious mental illness in New York, has also highlighted Rozario’s death to call for a vast expansion of the city’s mental health intervention programs.

Mental illness is primarily “a public health issue, not a public safety issue,” Arvind Sooknanan, a member of the board of directors at Fountain House, told CNN. The organization has laid out a plan for New York to “move as many mental health crisis calls as possible out of the 911 system” and integrate the existing 988 mental health hotline “with the social service system to help people address root cause stressors.”

For Sooknanan, Rozario’s case hits particularly close to home: Sooknanan has been living with serious mental illness since he was 15 and also comes from a South Asian background, like Rozario.

The case “has eaten away at me the past few weeks,” he said. “He was only 19 years old. There was no reason for him to die.”

“I want other people to have the same opportunities I did, to move forward with their lives, to find meaning, to find community,” said Sooknanan, who is also working to help develop crisis intervention programs in other states.

Ken Zimmerman, Fountain House’s CEO, told CNN he envisions a future in which “the knowledge and awareness of what serious mental health conditions are is so much more widespread, that the kind of stigma and fear that drives so much is hugely diminished.”

Additionally, he emphasised the importance of expanding the city’s resources and infrastructure for mental health care – a process that might take years.

And those resources and planning need to take into account the lived experience of people living with serious mental illnesses themselves, he said.

For the Rozario family, the fight to provide an alternative to police response for people in mental health crisis is powered by a dream that no other family should have to experience the anguish they’ve felt.

“No mother should have to go through the pain I’m going through,” Rozario’s mother said. “I hope no other mothers go through this in the future.”

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