It’s been seven months since 20-year-old Porter Burks was killed by Detroit police officers.
Burks had schizophrenia, and his family called the police because he was having a mental health emergency and had a 3.5-inch knife in his hand. His death sparked debate on the efficacy of the department’s crisis intervention training. However, the five police officers who shot at Burks did not face criminal charges.
How does one remain safe in a crisis when an emergency response can end with fatal violence?
Michigan Radio reporter Beenish Ahmed asked three experts to analyze police body cam footage and the officers’ response. The analysis sheds light on the intersection of law enforcement training and crisis intervention training, and whether the two conflict during an emergency.
Outlier Media: Tell me a little bit about why you chose to pursue this analysis to begin with.
Beenish Ahmed: It was pretty remarkable to me that Detroit Police Chief James White made the decision to release body cam footage from this fatal police encounter. (DPD released the footage two days after the shooting. At the time, White said he was forsaking department policy and making an exception for the sake of transparency). My initial thought then, based on what the chief said, was that he felt that this police encounter went as good as it possibly could have given the circumstances. I wanted to dig into that. I think when we see body cam footage, as folks in the media and also just as community members, we don’t totally know what to make of it, because we don’t have that full understanding of policing, of the training and the protocols and the nuances involved. So, I thought about what I could do to add a little bit of additional analysis — beyond what the chief offered and beyond the feelings that community members expressed around this incident.
The experts who provided analysis include Ernest Stevens, deputy division director for the Council State Governments Justice Center; Andrea Murray-Lichtman, a clinical associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Social Work; and Kevin Fischer, state executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the board president of Crisis Intervention Team Training International. How did you go about picking the experts who weighed in?
I did some digging into the Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) model and found that there are three categories of people who are involved in that training. There are people who have expertise in law enforcement, behavioral health care providers, and mental health advocates. It took some time to find people who were willing to share their insights and offer me that kind of a play by play.
Tell me a little bit about the reporting process itself. Why was it important to keep hounding for the unedited, plain footage?
I think they (the experts) just thought that context was important to inform how this police encounter played out. They were willing to talk about what they saw, but they told me, ‘We don’t know what we don’t know.’ That context of what had preceded when police first encountered Porter Burks on a neighborhood street would have been helpful to their understanding.
I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to receive the unedited, full body camera footage from the Detroit police. I also asked for the same from the Michigan State Police (MSP) and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office because they were involved in the investigation and the charging decision, respectively. I did not get the unedited footage from any of those parties. Michigan State Police and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said they did not have the footage, that it was returned to Detroit police at the conclusion of the investigation. [We did receive the Investigator’s Report written by MSP.] Detroit police gave me part of my request which was the 911 calls preceding the encounter with Porter Burks, the calls made by family members. They did not, however, give me the full, unedited body camera footage that I requested. And they did not give me a reason for why they didn’t give me that.
Was there any particular misstep or any particular moment in the initial interaction that stood out to you or stood out to the experts that maybe would have changed the outcome of the interaction?
I don’t know that I can comment on what would have changed. I think that one thing I realized is that there were just so many variables that are at play when it comes to police responses, especially to people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. One thing that stood out to me from the experts — was that they all pointed out that a second officer began talking to Porter Burks pretty soon after the first officer introduced himself and started talking to Porter Burks. They said generally, it’s best to have one person maintain that line of communication, especially for someone who’s experiencing a mental health crisis because there’s already a lot that’s hard to process for that individual.
By the end of the analysis, it seemed like you had one expert that was saying these are officers who are acting in accordance with their training. Then you had another expert that was saying their instinct took over. Do you think that’s reflective of national conversation but also the state of mental health crisis intervention in general?
One of the takeaways from this story for me was the level of tension between a law-enforcement approach and a crisis-intervention approach. More and more officers in Detroit and across the country are being trained in CIT but I think it’s important to bear in mind that those officers are also trained in law enforcement. I think one of the issues that comes up is the level of threat posed to officers and when they will use lethal force based on that threat level. At the end of the story you heard someone from a law enforcement perspective say, ‘Those officers were being really patient before they deployed their weapons’. You have someone from a mental health perspective say, ‘It seems like those officers responded out of instinctual fight or flight response.’ That highlights the challenges of threading this needle between [the roles of] law enforcement and mental health [providers]. And crisis intervention training is essentially that in-between but there are moments when one or the other is going to be deployed. They’re not necessarily able to work in tandem.
Michigan Radio published a resource guide for alternatives to 911 when experiencing a mental health crisis. You can check it out here. Those in Wayne County can call the Detroit-Wayne Integrated Health Network 24-hour crisis line at 800-630-1044. For those outside of Wayne County, here’s a complete list of mental health services statewide.