Activists call for mental health crisis unit in wake of fatal Detroit police shooting

Detroit – Local activists are calling for an independent mental health crisis response team following the fatal police shooting of Porter Burks just over a month ago.

About 30 people attended Saturday’s gathering at the Adams Butzel Recreation Center despite snow, sleet and 35-degree temperatures.

It was organized by the Detroit Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm, community organizing groups like We the People MI Action Fund, Michigan Liberation and Accountability for Dearborn, a group seeking transparency and the eventual release of Dearborn police.

Ash Daniels, the lead organizer for Michigan’s Care Not Criminalization campaign, said the state lacks adequate mental health facilities to provide care to those who need it, and black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by the lack of resources. , she said.

“We need facilities where people can go and numbers outside of the police when people are in crisis,” Daniels said. “When the police show up in uniform, then the person experiencing a crisis usually becomes more aggressive. And as seen in the past month, the results do not bode well.”

Detroit police officers fatally shot 22-year-old Burks 38 times in three seconds in October as he held a knife and refused to obey an officer’s orders to drop it. Burks’ family initially called the police because he was having a mental breakdown.

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Burks’ family has filed a $50 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the city of Detroit and the five unnamed officers who shot him earlier this month. The officers were placed on administrative leave after the shooting, according to Detroit police policy.

A police investigation into Burks’ past revealed that he had a history of run-ins with the police. Most recently, his family called police in June, reporting that Burks wanted to fight anyone. Police were previously called after Burks stabbed two family members in March and August 2020.

Detroit Police Chief James White previously said the system “failed Mr. Burks” and his family, who tried to help him.

Maranda Saylor, 23, said she wanted to show support at the rally because she said police were called to her in the middle of a mental breakdown when she was in her 20s.

“It was really scary when I saw the cops come in instead of a doctor,” Saylor said. “Crazy amount of things I could have avoided if someone would just come and talk to me and calm me down.”

Detroit police are responding to more than three times as many mental health-related 911 calls as in 2020, an average of 64 per day.

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Daniels said that because mental health-related 911 calls are increasing in frequency, a portion of the police department’s budget should be allocated to an independent crisis unit.

“It only takes about 2% of the DPD budget to fully start and fund a non-police crisis unit,” Daniels said. “More people (need to) get involved in social work and psychiatry, and, you know, be willing to show up to these calls and answer the phones.”

Alexandria Hughes, a leader with Accountability for Dearborn, said first responders in mental health crises should not carry guns.

She cited the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon and the Supportive Response Team (STAR) program in Denver, Colorado as examples Michigan cities could emulate.

The gun does not signal that the next response will be care. “The gun signals that the next response will be violence,” she said. “It’s essential that a person responding to a mental health crisis asks the person they need, asks them about their autonomy.”

Detroit police began expanding their Mental Health Co-Response Partnership in March. The initiative aims to treat mentally ill Detroiters instead of sending them to prison and train police officers in de-escalating situations with mentally ill people.

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A crisis intervention officer can be seen on body camera footage of Burks’ shooting saying, “You’re not in trouble, just drop the knife and we’ll get you help.”

A mother of two who also struggled with mental illness was fatally shot by Detroit police on Thursday. The woman’s mother called the police after she attacked her and her 7-year-old son and told them over the phone that her daughter had schizophrenia.

The woman was shot by police while struggling with an officer for access to a gun. The shooting remains under investigation, but police said the safety of the children in the home at the time of the shooting was their primary concern.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield said she is open to exploring all options when it comes to finding non-lethal methods to deal with residents with mental illness.

“In doing so, the goal should be to protect the lives of all involved, the individual in need, family members, neighbors and police officers,” Sheffield wrote in an email.

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