Shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs
|Date||October 29, 1984|
|Location||Bronx, New York City, New York, U.S.|
|Litigation||Bumpurs' family filed a lawsuit against New York City, settled for $200,000|
The shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs by the New York Police Department occurred on October 29, 1984. The police were present to enforce a city-ordered eviction of Bumpurs, an elderly, disabled African American woman, from her public housing apartment in the Bronx. In requesting NYPD assistance, housing authority workers told police that Bumpurs was emotionally disturbed, had threatened to throw boiling lye, and was using a knife to resist eviction. When Bumpurs refused to open the door, police broke in. In the struggle to subdue her, one officer fatally shot Bumpurs twice with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Bumpurs' shooting, one of several black deaths that inflamed racial tensions in 1980s New York, led to changes within the police department regarding responses to disabled and emotionally volatile persons. Officer Stephen Sullivan, who shot Bumpurs, was indicted on second-degree manslaughter, but was ultimately acquitted. Bumpurs' family sued the city for $10 million in damages, and settled for $200,000.
Prior to the eviction attempt, Bumpurs, who had arthritis and other health problems, had told her daughter Mary that someone in the building was harassing her. Mary advised her to keep the door locked. Bumpurs told a housing authority official she would not pay the rent because she was having maintenance problems, but refused to admit maintenance workers to her apartment when they were sent. In one phone conversation, she told a housing-authority manager she would not pay the rent because "people had come through the windows, the walls and the floors and had ripped her off". When maintenance workers were admitted to the apartment on October 12, they checked a hallway light and stove as requested, finding no problems with them, but found several cans of human feces in the bathtub. Bumpurs blamed these on "Reagan and his people".
Four days before the eviction attempt, the city sent a psychiatrist to visit Bumpurs. He concluded that Bumpurs was "psychotic" and "unable to manage her affairs properly" and should be hospitalized. A Social Services supervisor decided that the best way to help Bumpurs was to evict her first, then hospitalize her.
On the morning of October 29, Bumpurs told housing authority workers who had come to evict her that she would throw boiling lye at the next face to appear. The NYPD Emergency Service Unit, specially trained in subduing emotionally disturbed people was summoned, but was unable to get Bumpurs to come to the door. They drilled out the lock, and through the hole they could see the naked 66-year-old in her living room, holding a 10-inch kitchen knife. The officers then knocked down the door and entered. They attempted to restrain Bumpurs with plastic shields and a special Y-shaped bar, but she fought free, waving the knife and trying to slash an officer. His partner, Officer Stephen Sullivan, fired two shots from his 12-gauge pump action shotgun. One pellet from the first shot struck Bumpurs' hand; all nine pellets from the second shot struck her in the chest, killing her.
The case brought much notice: the victim was black, a senior citizen, and mentally ill. Some observers claimed that the fact that two shots had been fired also raised questions. To meet the criticism of the public, the PBA aired radio and print advertisements asserting that Bumpurs was a severe threat to the officers in the apartment: "This 300-pound woman suddenly charged one of the officers with a 12-inch butcher knife, striking his shield with such force that it bent the tip of the steel blade."
There followed the development of a new, special program to train police officers in New York State to work safely and effectively with "Emotionally Disturbed People (EDPs)". Employees of the NY State Department of Mental Health, along with those of the NYPD and NY State Police were trained as trainers. The new, mandatory course was delivered at the NYPD and State Police Training Academies, and to officers already in service. The program was delivered by training teams composed of police and mental health employees. It was an attempt to address the problem of safely controlling potentially dangerous situations.
A grand jury was convened to investigate Sullivan's actions. On January 30, 1985, the grand jury indicted Sullivan on charges of second-degree manslaughter, to which Sullivan pleaded not guilty. However, on April 12, Judge Vincent A. Vitale of State Supreme Court dismissed the indictment, ruling that under the New York State Penal Code "the evidence before the grand jury was legally insufficient to support the offense charged or any lesser included offense", and that Sullivan's "acts were in conformity with the guidelines and procedures outlined" in the NYPD's Emergency Service Unit manual.
The case took another turn on appeal when, on November 25, 1986, the New York Court of Appeals reinstated Sullivan's second-degree manslaughter indictment by a 6-1 vote. Chief Justice Sol Wachtler was the lone dissenter, saying that the evidence warranted more serious charges.
Trial of Officer Sullivan
Sullivan waived his right to a jury trial, choosing a bench trial before a judge only. The trial opened on January 12, 1987, over two years after Bumpurs' death. The trial hinged on whether Sullivan had used excessive force, especially in firing twice at Bumpurs. His fellow officers testified that Bumpurs was still not immobilized after the first blast hit her hand, and therefore still posed a threat to the police. In addition, two plastic surgeons testifying as expert witnesses for the prosecution said that Bumpurs could have continued to slash at the officers trying to subdue her even after her hand had been injured by the first shotgun blast. By contrast, the emergency room physician who treated Bumpurs immediately after the shooting stood by his grand jury testimony that her hand was left "a bloody stump" by the first shot.
On February 26, 1987 Judge Fred W. Eggert acquitted Sullivan on the charges of manslaughter. On August 4, 1987 federal prosecutors declined to investigate the Bumpurs case. Rudy Giuliani, who was the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan at the time, stated that he had found "nothing indicating that the case was not tried fully, fairly and competently", and that there was no "proof of a specific intent to inflict excessive and unjustified force."
Civil suit and settlement
The Bumpurs family filed a civil suit against the city for $10 million in damages. In March 1990, the city agreed to pay $200,000 to the Bumpurs estate, marking a close to the legal proceedings stemming from the shooting.
Social Services demotions
The Bumpurs case was one of several racially charged cases in New York during the 1980s that exacerbated racial tensions. Others were the fatal assault on Willie Turks in 1982, the 1983 arrest and death of Michael Stewart while in police custody, the subway shooting of four men by Bernhard Goetz in 1984, the fatal assault on Michael Griffith in 1986, the shooting of six NYPD officers by Larry Davis also in 1986, and the murder of Yusef Hawkins in 1989.
Since shortly after Bumpurs' death, members of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit have carried Tasers, weapons that can deliver thousands of volts of incapacitating electrical current, as an alternative to the use of firearms when dealing with the mentally ill.
- Wilson, Michael (2003-12-28). "When Mental Illness Meets Police Firepower; Shift in Training for Officers Reflects Lessons of Encounters Gone Awry". The New York Times. Retrieved 2003-12-28.
In 1984, a 66-year-old woman named Eleanor Bumpurs, four months behind in the $98.65 rent at her Bronx apartment, threatened housing workers who came to evict her that she would hurl boiling lye at the next face at her door. Officers arrived with shields and a special Y-shaped bar used to pin people to the wall, but the woman, almost 300 pounds and naked, fought her way free, waving a knife and trying to slash an officer. His partner shot her twice with a shotgun, once in the hand and once, fatally, in the chest.
- Raab, Selwyn (1984-11-27). "AUTOPSY FINDS BUMPURS WAS HIT BY TWO BLASTS". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
An autopsy on a Bronx woman who was fatally shot by the police in an eviction dispute indicates that she was hit by two shotgun blasts, not one, as originally reported by police officials.
- Merola, Mario (1988). Big City D.A.. Random House. pp. 7–27. ISBN 0-394-55263-6.
- Raab, Selwyn (1985-04-13). "STATE JUDGE DISMISSES INDICTMENT OF OFFICER IN THE BUMPURS KILLING". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
In his ruling, the judge said there was testimony that when the officers assured Mrs. Bumpurs 'there was no desire to hurt her,' she responded 'with repeated threats' and displayed a large knife.
- Buder, Leonard.Officers' Union Runs Ads Backing Action Of Police in Bumpurs Case." New York Times 13 December 1984, p. B18.
- Hevesi, Dennis (1986-11-26). "COURT ALLOWS BUMPURS CASE TO BE TRIED". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-02-17.
New York State's highest court reinstated a manslaughter charge yesterday against a police officer who killed a knife-wielding, emotionally disturbed woman during an attempt to evict her from her Bronx apartment in 1984.
- Hudson, Edward (1987-01-21). "EX-OFFICER DESCRIBES KEY MOMENT AT SCENE OF THE BUMPURS SHOOTING". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
A retired police officer testified yesterday that Eleanor Bumpurs made repeated stabbing motions at him after a fellow officer fired the first of two shotgun blasts during a 1984 police eviction attempt in her Bronx apartment.
- Prial, Frank J. (1987-02-10). "2 DOCTORS TESTIFY SHOT LEFT BUMPUR'S GRIP INTACT". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-09.
One witness yesterday, Dr. Jane A. Petro, chief of microsurgery at the Westchester Medical Center, said that based on photographs, X-rays and a medical examiner's reports on Mrs. Bumpurs, "there was no apparent damage to the part of the hand that controls the power grip," the small and ring fingers.
- Prial, Frank J. "Judge Acquits Sullivan In Shotgun Slaying of Bumpurs." New York Times 27 February 1987, p. B1.
- "U.S. Inquiry Ruled Out In Death of Bumpurs." New York Times 5 August 1987, p. B3.
- Fahim, Kareem; Hauser, Christine (2008-09-25). "Taser Use in Man's Death Broke Rules, Police Say". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-06.
The officers in the unit have carried Tasers since shortly after the 1984 death of Eleanor Bumpurs, a disturbed, obese woman who was shotgunned to death by an officer in her apartment after she escaped a restraint and brandished a knife.
- Brody, Richard (2019-06-28). "The Enduring Urgency of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" at Thirty". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2021-09-08.