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

Detroit — Local activists are calling for the creation of an independent mental health crisis response team following the Fatal shooting by Porter Burks police a little over a month ago.

About 30 people attended Saturday’s rally 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 that demands transparency and eventually the Dearborn Police Divestment.

Ash Daniels, lead organizer for Michigan Liberation’s Care Not Criminalization campaign, said the state lacks adequate mental health facilities to provide care to those in need, and that 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, the person in crisis usually tends to become more aggressive. And as we’ve seen over the past month, the results don’t bode well.”

In October, Detroit police officers shot Burks, 22, 38 times in three seconds as he clutched a knife and refused to obey the officer’s orders to drop him. Burks’ family had initially called the police because he was having a mental health crisis.

Burks’ family has 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, in accordance with Detroit police policy.

A police investigation into Burks’ past revealed that he had a history of run-ins with the police. More recently, his family called the police in June to report that Burks was looking to fight anyone. Prior to this, police were called after Burks stabbed two family members in March and August 2020.

Detroit Police Chief James White previously said that the system “failed Mr. Burks” and his familywho tried to get him to help.

Maranda Sailor, 23, said she wanted to show her support at the rally as she said police were called to her amid a mental health crisis when she was 20.

“It was really scary when I saw the police come in instead of a doctor,” Sailor said. “A crazy amount of stuff that I could have avoided if someone came to talk to me and calm me down.”

Detroit police respond to more than three times as many 911 calls related to mental health as they did in 2020, averaging 64 per day.

Daniels said that since mental health-related 911 calls are becoming more frequent, part of the police department’s budget should be allocated to an independent crisis unit.

“It only takes about 2% of DPD’s budget to start and fully fund a non-police crisis unit,” Daniels said. “More people (need) to go into social work and psychiatry, and, you know, be prepared to show up for those calls and answer the phone.”

Alexandria Hughes, leader of Accountability for Dearborn, said first responders in 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 Michigan cities could emulate.

A gun does not signal that the next response will be healing. A gun signals that the next response will be violence,” she said. “It is fundamental for a person in charge of the intervention in the event of a mental health crisis to ask the person what they need, to ask them questions about their autonomy.

Detroit police started expanding their mental health co-response partnership in March. The initiative aims to treat Detroiters with mental health issues instead of sending them to jail and to train officers in de-escalation situations with people with mental health issues.

A crisis response officer is seen in body camera footage of Burks’ shooting saying, “You have no problem, just drop the knife and we’ll help you.”

On Thursday, Detroit police fatally shot and killed a mother of two who also suffered from mental illness. The woman’s mother called the police after assaulting herself and her 7-year-old son and informed them over the phone that her daughter had schizophrenia.

The woman was shot dead by police as she struggled with an officer to access a gun. The shooting is still under investigation, but police say the safety of the children at home at the time of the shooting was their primary concern.

Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield said she is ready to explore all options when it comes to finding non-lethal methods to treat residents with mental illnesses.

“That said, protecting the lives of everyone involved, the person in need of assistance, family members, neighbors and police, should be the goal,” Sheffield wrote in an email.

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