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Analysis: How a police mental health call turned fatal

Detroit Police Department via Facebook

When Demarco Anderson told the police that his brother, Porter Burks, was having “a real bad episode” in the early hours of October 2, both he and the officers seemed to think the whole thing would end in the hospital. Instead, within five minutes of locating Burks on a quiet neighborhood street, police would shoot at the 20-year-old 38 times, killing him.

“This is a tragic situation,” Detroit Police Chief James White told reporters two days after the fatal encounter.

“Anytime we use force, it's not the desired outcome. Anytime we use fatal force, it's the worst outcome.”

But when pressed about how police handled the situation, White said he saw the “deployment of an effective strategy.” Police departments are often reluctant to release body camera footage, not least because of a sense that the public might not fully appreciate the complex decisions and nuanced demands of law enforcement.

It seems White may have made the unusual decision to make the footage of the fatal encounter with Burks public so soon after it happened because he felt it showed officers responding appropriately to a particularly difficult call, following basic police training and employing crisis intervention strategies to try and de-escalate a situation involving a young man who had previously stabbed family members and escaped from a psychiatric unit.

White noted that the response was led by an officer who was a part of the Crisis Intervention Team, which requires a 40-hour training meant to help people in crisis get the help they need.

But the speed with which police drew their weapons, the use of guns instead of Tasers, and the number of shots fired at someone who was known to be in a state of crisis, outraged Burks’ family members as well as many Detroit residents.

The questions continued to swirl even after the footage was released. There were those like the chief, who saw officers following best practices, and others who thought it showed reactive officers who were too quick to the trigger.

Those who felt the use of force was out of line were especially concerned about Burks’ condition: Someone with schizophrenia can hear voices telling them what to do, or see things that are frightening; they can have delusions about their own abilities, including a sense of invincibility.

Michigan Radio reached out to three experts to watch the Porter Burks video and weigh in on officers’ actions. Together, these experts have extensive experience in the fields of law enforcement, behavioral health treatment, and mental health advocacy – the three areas that come together to provide Crisis Intervention Team training.

We asked these experts to unpack a few aspects of the police response to Burks, a young black man in crisis: how the CIT officer communicated with Burks; the role of other officers on the scene; and the use of lethal force.

How the lead officer communicated with Porter

The edited video released by Detroit police cuts from the front porch conversation with Burks’ brother Demarco Anderson to a few minutes later, when officers have located Burks nearby. The body cam footage shows Burks a few dozen feet away from officers, down a dark neighborhood street.

Michigan Radio asked Detroit Police, through a Freedom of Information Act request, for the full unedited body cam footage. Despite numerous follow-ups and an administrative appeal, we did not receive the unedited video. We did, however, obtain the Michigan State Police Investigator’s Report for the fatal encounter through a different request. Through the report, we learned that Sean’s full name is Seamus John-Berlin Waderlow.

Waderlow began talking to Burks by introducing himself.

“My name is Sean,” he said. “I’m with the Crisis Intervention Team. I’m just here to check on you.”

Source: Detroit Police Department via Facebook

Our experts agreed that Officer Waderlow’s tone was effective.

But Fischer, who has had personal experience with people in crisis, noted that Burks might not have been in a position to say what he needed – or to respond to what was being asked of him.

As he spoke, Waderlow reached a gloved hand in Burks’ direction.

Source: Detroit Police Department via Facebook

Chief White pointed to that gesture as an important part of CIT training, and said that it signals to the person in crisis that “everything here is safe” and “you’re in total control of this moment.”

Our experts tended to agree with that assessment. Fischer and Stevens said body language is an important part of de-escalating people who are in crisis.

But Murray-Lichtman was skeptical about how much to make of that gesture, given everything else that was happening – especially when she saw Waderlow unholster his weapon and hold it in his other hand.

At this point in the body cam footage, Waderlow was in the center of the street looking down at Burks, who was about 40 feet away. The other officers were lined up on the curb. In the footage we can see Waderlow draw his gun. It’s likely other officers did the same thing, holding their firearms into what’s called a “low-ready” position. Waderlow had his gun pointed in Burks’ direction, but not right at him – keeping it low, about 45 degrees up from the ground. Stevens said a low-ready is a “non-threatening position.”

But again, given Burks’ mental state, he may not have been readily able to process what he was being told or to articulate his needs in real time.

The role of the other officers on the scene

When Detroit’s Chief White first briefed the media on this fatal encounter, he said “at least five officers were present.” Michigan Radio has learned that a total of 10 officers were on the scene.

About a minute after Waderlow first introduced himself, a different officer – who is not identified in the MSP investigation – interjected, calling out to Burks. His tone is a bit different, more exasperated. The whole situation seems to barrel forward faster after this second officer started talking.

Source: Detroit Police Department via Facebook

It’s hard to hear, but Burks does respond. It sounds like he tells this second officer, “I just like to hold knives,” and “I just want to get some rest.”

Our three experts generally agreed that having more than one officer talk to someone in crisis usually isn’t helpful.

Too many people talking at once can get confusing, Stevens said, especially for someone in a moment of crisis. Fischer noted that officers are informed of that as part of CIT training.

After that second officer spoke, a number of others did too. When Burks stepped toward police a couple minutes later, a whole chorus of voices called out to urge him back. 

Source: Detroit Police Department via Facebook

Many people who spoke out about this incident wondered if a less lethal weapon – specifically a Taser – might have been deployed to stop Burks without killing him. It’s a question Murray-Lichtman posed too: “Where's the room for a stun gun being used?” she asked. “Where's the room for anything else that might leave a person alive?”

When reporters asked Chief White about the use of less-lethal force at the briefing following Porter Burks’ death, he said a supervisor on the scene talked about using a Taser, but he was unaware if it had actually been used. The MSP Investigation makes clear that one officer did discharge a Taser, at the same time other officers fired their guns.

In that press briefing, the Chief also said the fact that Burks ran toward officers changed the calculus for how officers responded. “When you're closing on someone with a knife … there's really little time to wait for the reaction of a Taser,” White told reporters.

Stevens had the same reaction when he watched the body cam footage. For a Taser to be effective, he said, it usually has to be discharged from within seven feet of the target.

Shortly after this incident, Detroit police announced they had purchased more non-lethal weapons to help officers resolve situations without deadly force.

How and when police fired on Porter

Burks ultimately did not follow the officers’ command to drop the knife. He didn’t accept offers from police to get him help.

For most of the video, police kept a distance of a few dozen feet from Burks. Then, without warning, Burks threw his arms over his head – knife still in hand – and ran at police.

Source: Detroit Police Department via Facebook

The sounds you hear at the end of the clip are gunshots.

Of the 38 bullets police shot at Burks, 19 hit his body. Five of the 10 officers on scene fired their weapons – including Waderlow. Three of those officers were white, two were Black. All were 23 years old or younger, except one, who was 28. It’s right after we hear the first few shots that the video ends.

Murray-Lichtman thought a “fight or flight” response kicked in, with officers firing shots out of fear instead of following their police training. A lot of Detroit residents and local activists thought the same thing – that the use of guns was a knee-jerk response. Some saw the use of guns against someone who had only a knife as excessive.

But Stevens saw the opposite: He saw officers responding exactly how their training would have told them to, noting that in most police academies, officers learn what is called the “21-foot rule.”

That rule is based on a training scenario that found someone with a knife could cover 21 feet before an officer had a chance to unholster his weapon and fire.

Knives can pose a deadly threat to officers. Stevens said most people don’t realize it, but a knife can cut through the kind of bulletproof vests most police wear while on duty.

After shooting at Burks, police huddled around him and handcuffed him. They called to get an estimated time of arrival for an ambulance, but didn’t receive one. That’s when officers put Burks into the back of Waderlow’s squad car. An officer performed CPR as they drove Burks to the hospital. When they got him there, medical staff checked for a pulse and didn’t find one. They told the officers at the hospital that Burks had died.

Officers were put on leave only during the investigation of Porter Burks’ death. After the Wayne County prosecutor decided not to bring criminal charges against the officers involved, his family sued the Detroit police.

All our experts felt for Burks’ family and for the officers who were involved.

Fischer, whose son had two disparate experiences with police during mental health crises, wants people to be aware of alternatives to 911 for people struggling with mental health issues. Any time you call the police,” he said, “you are inviting an armed response into that situation. Sometimes it's necessary, but more than often, it's not.” 

We asked Porter Burks’ mother to talk to us for this story, but she didn’t respond to our request. In the days after Burks’ death, his family urged people not to call the police for loved ones in crisis.

Following the police killing of a young man with schizophrenia several months ago, Michigan Radio collected resources to find support for people in mental health crisis.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said police shot Burks 38 times. Officers shot at Burks 38 times, striking him 19 times.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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