Detroit — Local activists are calling for the establishment of an independent mental health crisis response team in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Porter Burks just over a month ago.
About 30 people attended Saturday’s rally at 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 that demands transparency and eventually divestment from the Dearborn police.
Ash Daniels, the lead organizer on Michigan Liberation’s Care Not Criminalization Campaign, said the state lacks adequate mental health facilities to provide care for those in need, and Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by the lack of resources, she said.
“We need facilities where folks can go and numbers outside of the police when people are in a crisis,” Daniels said. “When the police show up in their uniforms, then the person experiencing a crisis usually tends to become more aggressive. And as seen in the past month, the results don’t bode well.”
Detroit police officers fatally shot at 22-year-old Burks 38 times in three seconds in October while he held a knife and refused to obey officer’s commands to drop it. Burks’ family had initially called the police because he was having a mental health crisis.
Burks’ family filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Detroit and the five unnamed police officers who shot him earlier this month. The officers were placed on administrative leave following the shooting, per 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 the police in June reporting that Burks was looking to fight anyone. Before that police were called after Burks stabbed two family members in March and August of 2020.
Detroit police chief James White has previously said that the system “failed Mr. Burks” and his famil, who tried to get him help.
Maranda Sailor, 23, said she wanted to show support at the rally because she said the police were called on her in the midst of a mental health crisis when she was 20.
“It was really scary when I saw police officers walk in instead of a doctor,” Sailor said. “A crazy amount of things I could have avoided if someone just came and talked to me and calmed me down.”
Detroit police are responding to more than three times as many mental-health-related 911 calls as they did in 2020, averaging 64 per day.
Daniels said since mental health-related 911 calls are increasing in frequency, some of the police department’s budget should be allocated to an independent crisis unit.
“It only takes roughly about 2% of DPD’s budget to fully start and fund a nonpolice crisis unit,” Daniels said. “More people (need) to get into social work and into psychiatry, and, you know, be willing to show up to these calls and to answer the phone.”
Alexandria Hughes, a leader in the Accountability for Dearborn organization, said first responders to mental health crisis situations should not carry guns.
She cited the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, and the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program in Denver, Colorado, as examples that Michigan cities could emulate.
“A gun does not signal that the following response will be care. A gun signals the following response will be violence,” she said. “It’s fundamental for a mental health crisis response person to ask the person what they need, ask them about their autonomy.”
The 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 jail and train officers in de-escalating situations with mentally ill people.
A crisis intervention officer is visible in the body camera footage of Burks’ shooting saying, “You’re not in any trouble, just drop the knife and we’ll get you some help.”
On Thursday Detroit police fatally shot a mother of two who also struggled with mental illness. The woman’s mother called the police after she had assaulted both her and her 7-year-old son and informed them over the phone that her daughter had schizophrenia.
The woman was shot by police while struggling with an officer to access a gun. The shooting remains under investigation but police said that 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 of dealing with residents with mental illnesses.
“With that said, protecting the lives of everyone involved, the individual needing help, family members, neighbors and police officers, should be the goal,” Sheffield wrote in an email.