Police Standoff With Man in a Tree Ends on the Third Day
The police arrived at Roody Thomas’s home in Queens shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday for what seemed like a typical call of a domestic disturbance …
The police arrived at Roody Thomas’s home in Queens shortly before 1 p.m. Wednesday for what seemed like a typical call of a domestic disturbance.
But when officers knocked on the door, Mr. Thomas, 44, escaped onto the roof of his home and then climbed into a nearby tree, where he perched on a cluster of branches about 30 feet in the air for more than 48 hours.
The episode came to an end around 5 p.m. Friday, when the police — who tried to coax Mr. Thomas down with hostage negotiators, loud music and drones — appeared to relent and left the block. When they were gone, Mr. Thomas climbed out of the tree and into a second-floor window.
Mr. Thomas was wanted on an earlier assault charge, the police said. He was not arrested after coming down Friday afternoon, and it was not clear whether he would face charges related to his time in the tree.
Neighbors — many of whom said they knew Mr. Thomas — had gathered since Wednesday to watch the scene unfold. Many of them appeared to support Mr. Thomas, with some saying he had experienced mental health problems in the past. Reba Perry, a neighbor who is a police chaplain, said the call was being treated as an “E.D.P.” situation — a term used to describe an emotionally disturbed person.
In a brief interview inside his home, Mr. Thomas said he was “not good at all” after spending almost three days in the tree.
“It was like a death situation that I was looking at right in front of my eyes,” he said before launching into a rambling account of an arrest several years ago after an episode involving a neighbor. Mr. Thomas said he had been living in the house, on 145th Avenue in the Brookville area, since junior high school.
He said that a mistrust of law enforcement authorities that dated to time spent in jail at Rikers Island had led him to climb the tree on Wednesday.
“This actually started years ago,” he said.
The episode occurred as New York City officials grapple with how best to respond to police calls involving people experiencing mental health crises. Such calls have sometimes turned deadly. This week, a police sergeant faced a disciplinary hearing over the 2016 shooting death of Deborah Danner, a schizophrenic woman who had refused to leave her bedroom.
“This person should be addressed as a person that has an emotional or mental problem or issue,” said Sabine French, who lives 10 minutes away from Mr. Thomas in Queens and spoke with him on Thursday. “And that was not happening.”
Robin Hernandez, who has lived in the neighborhood for about a decade, said she had seen Mr. Thomas jogging around the block in the past. She was one of about 30 neighbors who had gathered a few houses away over the past few days, sitting and watching quietly from patio chairs or cars, waiting to see whether Mr. Thomas would come down from the tree or be forced out.
On Friday, two officers spent much of the day on the roof of Mr. Thomas’s house about 10 feet below where he was sitting, shirtless with a blanket dangling from the branches nearby. At least 40 more officers were assembled below.
Several neighbors said that the police had flown drones with loud sirens over the house from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., trying to drive Mr. Thomas out of the tree with the noise.
Guy Bruno, who said he had lived a block from Mr. Thomas since 1998, said he had seen him asking to speak to a Black officer on Wednesday. A Black officer briefly came to the window to speak with him, Mr. Bruno said, but when the officer left, Mr. Thomas, who is Black, became upset. That seemed to be the moment when he decided to stay put, Mr. Bruno said.
“I thought it would be over already,” Mr. Bruno said. “I didn’t expect it to be this long. I thought it would be a quick thing.”
Ms. French, who is also the Queens borough advocate, said that Ms. Perry, the police chaplain, had called asking for her help, since Ms. French, like Mr. Thomas, is Haitian. She said he was talkative and relaxed when she spoke to him in Haitian Creole for about an hour on Thursday.
Although he was laughing and joking, Ms. French said, when she asked whether he would come down from the tree to eat, he told her he would not until the police left. He also told her repeatedly that he was feeling intense stress.
The officers, Mr. French said, should have ceded the situation to mental health professionals on the first day. She added that she did not understand why the police used hostage-negotiation specialists to deal with someone experiencing emotional distress.
“I feel as if the N.Y.P.D. is not acknowledging mental illness,” Ms. French said. A police spokesman declined to answer questions about the episode or whether Mr. Thomas would be arrested.
The Police Department has been trying to shift away from a police-first response to mental illness calls, announcing a new plan last November to dispatch mental health crisis workers in such emergencies. In June, the city began a program in Harlem that sends paramedics and social workers rather than officers on some mental health calls.
But in most instances, officers are still the first ones to answer most mental health calls, and the Police Department has been slow to discipline those who have used deadly force in situations involving people in emotional distress.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.