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Diane Ravitch Headshot

The Senseless Death of Carol Gotbaum

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Carol Gotbaum died on September 28 in police custody at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. She was traveling from New York City, where she lived with her husband Noah and three young children, to Tucson, where she was supposed to enter a month-long rehabilitation program for alcoholism. She missed her connecting flight from Phoenix to Tucson and became emotionally distraught. Faced with her outbursts, the security agents at the gate summoned the airport police.

I never met Carol, but I have known Betsy Gotbaum, her stepmother, for more than 30 years. I can attest that Betsy is one of the most conscientious, faithful, loving, and attentive people I have ever known. She was one of Carol's closest friends.

I attended the memorial service for Carol in New York City on October 7, where her friends described her as a person of intense privacy and great dignity, a person with a smile that illuminated any room she entered, a devoted mother to her children. It may have been that sense of privacy that kept her from confronting and talking about her alcoholism and depression. If there is anything to be gained from this tragic event, it may be the recognition that we must encourage people with addictions to speak about them, to confront them, not to hide them, not to feel so ashamed that they keep inside the secrets that are destroying them.

It has been widely reported in the press that when Carol missed her flight, she became hysterical. She was screaming, "I am not a terrorist. I am a sick mom. I need help." She was right on every count. She was not a terrorist; she threatened no one. She was a sick mom. She needed help. Perhaps this was one of the few -- maybe the only occasion--where she openly cried out for help.

Did she get help? No, she got the treatment that we would normally expect the police to use with a rabid dog or a vicious criminal. Did anyone speak kindly to her, put a hand on her shoulder and try to calm her? No, she was manhandled and roughly treated, adding to her agitation and distress.

As anyone can see who has watched the airport surveillance video, which is widely available on the Internet, three burly police officers approached Carol, a slender woman of about 105 pounds, and promptly wrestled her to the ground, face-down. One of them appeared to sit on her back while she was handcuffed. Then they pulled her to her feet and dragged her away, with her hands cuffed behind her back. According to the police, they put her into a cell, hands still cuffed, and they shackled her to a wall with a chain. The police report said that she continuously screamed.

The police left her alone in the cell. They left this frightened, terrified woman who was obviously in great emotional distress, chained and cuffed like an animal. Alone, with no way to communicate with anyone she knew. Screaming, screaming, alone, frightened; no one cared. Within a short period of time--maybe 15 minutes, the screaming stopped. This got the police officer's attention. Screaming they could bear; silence was intolerable. A police officer decided it was time to check on Carol to find out why she wasn't screaming anymore. This officer found her unconscious, probably already dead, strangled by the chain that shackled her to the wall.

The police have claimed that they followed proper procedures throughout this terrible ordeal. It was proper, they say, to cuff her; it was proper, they say, to shackle this unhappy woman to the wall inside a locked cell; it was proper, they say, to leave her alone despite her great duress. They have not explained why it was necessary to keep on the handcuffs and the shackles once she was locked inside a cell.

At Carol Gotbaum's memorial service in Manhattan on Sunday, Rabbi Robert Levine said that Carol died because of "human cruelty and indifference."

The police officers treated her like a reluctant cow that they were bringing to slaughter, not like a woman in emotional trauma. They were cowboys, she was the terrified beast that needed to be roped and tied down.

Certainly it is true that extra vigilance is needed inside an airport terminal to protect against terrorism, but the police knew that Carol Gotbaum was not a terrorist; they knew that she was not armed and posed no danger to anyone but herself. On the video, dozens of people walked quickly past the scene, averting their eyes to avoid seeing that a fellow human being was being trussed and dragged off, having committed no crime worse than being a nuisance to others.

If the police handling of Carol Gotbaum was proper procedure, then the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport should post signs warning passengers and their families that "Emotional breakdowns are prohibited in this airport and will be dealt with harshly, cruelly, and with maximum force."

A beautiful young woman is dead. Three small children have lost their mother. But the police followed proper procedures. For sure, the procedures need to be reviewed to figure out how to distinguish between a terrorist and a person who is emotionally and mentally disturbed. The police need training to learn how to treat people with decency and kindness instead of force and restraints.

Dammit all, they need to change something. Carol Gotbaum should not have died in police custody. What happened to her should never happen to anyone else. What happened at Sky Harbor International Airport on September 28 was an outrage.

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