The best way to respond to cries for help is with help

“This is the ultimate act of domestic violence,” Commander Adam Hornick of the Bethlehem Police told the press at a briefing last Wednesday evening.

The day before, Sept. 29, police had made a grisly discovery when they went to check on a 58-year-old Selkirk couple whom family had not been able to reach. Police found the body of the husband, Bhupinder Saran, on the first floor of the couple’s upscale home and the body of his wife, Sarbjit Saran, on the second floor.

Police determined that Bhupinder Saran killed his wife and then himself, and noted the couple had a history of domestic violence.

There was a current “refrain-from” order of protection against Bhupinder Saran, ordering him not to have any illegal contact with his wife, which was issued out of Albany County Family Court, Hornick said. Hornick explained that a refrain-from order meant, “He cannot commit a crime, offense against her … It allows them to live together, reside together.”

Between 2016 and 2019, the Bethlehem Police had been to the Sarans’ home  “about half-a-dozen times for domestic-related incidents,” said Hornick. The last time was in early September, 2019.

Readers of our story posted comments in response, blaming the police.

We do not blame police for the death of Sarbjit Saran. But we believe all of us should try to learn from it. In her obituary, her family describes her as “a bright ray of sunshine” — a woman who returned to her native India to help those in need, not for her own pleasure.

“Sarbjit’s life was defined by her faith in God, caring for and serving others, unparalleled work ethic, and unwavering love and devotion to her children,” her family wrote. While her life was unique and her untimely death a terrible loss, the means of her death is not unique.

The problem of battering escalating to murder is tragically all too common in our society. Seventy-two percent of all murder-suicides nationwide involve an intimate partner; 94 percent of the victims of these murders are female, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

With 10 million Americans estimated to be suffering each year from domestic violence — and many suspect the number has increased during the recent pandemic shutdown as people are isolated in their homes — the path to death becomes more likely.

“We try to make some good from a bad situation,” Hornick said at last week’s press briefing, stressing the services that are available to help victims of domestic violence. “We always just want people to know support is out there …,” said Hornick. “Acts of domestic violence will not be tolerated.”

We like Hornick’s stance that domestic violence will not be tolerated but what do we do to prevent it? 

One tool advocated over a decade ago in the National Institue of Justice Journal is to have a fatality review after a murder-suicide like the one that ocurred in Bethlehem last week.

Similar to reviews required after an airplane crash, a fatality review is meant to find out what went wrong and what could have been done differently to prevent the tragedy. 

“The review team asks many questions: Did the victim approach a social service or law enforcement agency? If so, what services and interventions were provided? How might these have been provided more effectively? How might the victim have been better protected?” writes Neil Websdale, Ph.D., director of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative. “In short, a fatality review identifies relevant social, economic, and policy realities that compromise the safety of battered women and their children.”

Fatality reviews can highlight practices that have worked well and can reveal trends that are harmful, and may lead to changes to the system that could prevent future deaths. 

We believe this should be part of the discussion communities across New York State are having now as Governor Andrew Cuomo has ordered police departments to reform and reinvent themselves.

The focus has rightly been on the disparate treatment received by Black residents at the hands of police. And this disparity plays out in matters of domestic abuse, too.

Reviews of domestic-violence deaths in poor Black neighborhoods show that African-American women “display a deep suspicion of police, social services, shelters, housing agencies, and the courts,” writes Websdale. “Community policing and its emphasis on greater and more varied forms of surveillance seems to make little difference to domestic violence in these acutely disadvantaged areas.”

Conducting fatality reviews, he suggests, could foster dialogue between inner-city minority citizens and political authorities, including discussion of drugs, public housing rules, welfare-to-work initiatives, the mass incarceration of Black people, the ongoing loss of meaningful and relatively well-paid jobs from the inner city, and other policies that limit battered women’s ability to leave dangerous intimate relationships.

But the reform movement currently underway has to recognize a larger issue that applies to every community — wealthy or middle-class or poor, white or brown or Black: Police alone cannot handle all the ills of society. That concept is part of what has been unfortunately termed the “defund police” movement.

This movement is not about just cutting back police. Rather, it is about involving needed experts from other disciplines where needed. 

As we wrote our story last week about the murder-suicide in Bethlehem, we were reminded of a story we wrote four years ago about a homeless man, Carl Baranishyn Jr., who lived in the woods in Berne and, in an agitated state one night, called police. When two State Troopers arrived, he came at them with a knife in each hand.

He was shot three times and died on the scene. The death was ruled “suicide by police.” After his death, as we tried to piece together the story of Baranishyn’s life, we learned he had problems with alcoholism and mental-health issues. The last post on his Facebook page said: “Anyone feel alone even with others are around?”

We editorialized then, “We don’t blame the two Troopers for Baranishyn’s death. They did what they were trained to do. They were the endpoint for a death that might have been avoided if there had been earlier interventions.”

We wrote then about police departments, such as the one in Portland, Oregon, that were training their officers to handle cases of people with mental-health issues differently — for instance, simply walking away from a man with a knife rather than confronting him.

At the time, Albany County was sponsoring training for local police in Crisis Intervention Team work, developed three decades ago, which was becoming more common as studies have shown that a quarter of the people shot dead by police have had a mental disorder.

Training that can diffuse a crisis would be safer for citizens and for the police officers who risk their lives to make our society safer, we wrote then.

We’re encouraged by a program we discussed this week with Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy. A bill that passed two years ago, backing the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD, allows police officers to divert from arrest three categories of people: homeless people, people with drug issues, and people with mental-health problems.

The man who died in Berne fit all three categories.

In Albany, the program partners with Catholic Charities so that social workers are on call to work with police preventing arrest for people who need help. We hope programs like this are adopted elsewhere and expanded.

We urge our communities, and particularly the committees charged with reviewing police policy, to consider the sort of reform that would shift the sole responsibility for our safety and welfare from police to include other service providers like psychologists and social workers.

The reform plans are due by April to ensure state funding. But far more than funding is at stake. We have a chance to improve the welfare of our society as a whole.

More Editorials

  • We need to act regionally as we rebuild. This pandemic, and the economic fallout, have shown us all how wide the gap is — in schools, in housing, in health care — between white and Black communities. We should seize this crisis, which coincides with a nationwide racial reckoning, to work together as a county to rebuild in a way that offers hope to those who most need it.

  • Sacrificing the safety of children for political expediency is unacceptable. Schools need both accurate guidance and adequate funding to keep our children safe.

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