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Porter Burks family suing City of Detroit for $50 million, claims assault, gross negligence

Detroit skyline
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Detroit skyline

The family of 20-year-old Porter Burks is suing the city of Detroit after he was fatally shot during an interaction with police in October.

Police have said officers fired at Burks 38 times after he lunged toward them with a pocket knife. Police said a family member of Burks called them for help as he went through mental health crisis.

An autopsy report, distributed by the family's attorney Geoffrey Fieger, shows that Burks was shot 19 times.

The lawsuit also alleges that police handcuffed Burks lifeless body after he had been shot.

Police have released edited video that shows Burks, with the knife, several feet away from officers before he was shot. Officers said Burks approached as close as 6 feet from officers when they were shooting, but the lawsuit says the distance was around 50 feet.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday claims gross negligence, assault, battery, and willful misconduct. In addition to the City of Detroit, five unnamed officers are also included as defendants. They are all listed as John Doe, except one officer who is listed as Shawn Doe.

The police department says the five officers who shot at Burks are on administrative leave pending investigations.

Detroit City Councilmember Angela Whitfield Calloway and other advocates called on the Detroit Police Department Tuesday to release the names of the five officers who fired at Burks.

The complaint filed as part of the lawsuit says those officers "knew, through their training and/or from other sources, that mentally ill persons, especially those in the midst of a mental health crisis like Mr. Burks … are usually unable to comprehend verbal commands … typically require additional time and space during confrontations … and often become confused, frightened, and/or agitated when suddenly confronted by a large group of officers pointing guns."

The court filing also offers a description of how mental illness affected Burks' life.

"Mr. Burks' mental illness often caused psychosis. He saw hallucinations and heard voices that were not there," the complaint says.

"During one of his hospitalizations, Mr. Burks thought there was a squirrel living inside of him. His efforts to extricate the squirrel were to no avail. This was not a life adolescent Mr. Burks would have chosen for himself. When Mr. Burks was getting regular, effective treatment, he could respond normally. He enjoyed dancing and listening to music like most 20-year-olds."

"When his illness manifested, Mr. Burks became paranoid and many times felt threatened if seeing or hearing things that were not there," the lawsuit reads. "When these flare ups of his disease occurred, Mr. Brooks was taken to the hospital by either family or the police. His medications were often adjusted and re-administered."

The lawsuit also claims that the Detroit Police Department has violated the Freedom of Information Act by not releasing documents the lawyer and family have requested.

Detroit Police Chief James White called Burks death a tragedy. He said in a statement that "if appropriate mental health facilities and treatment plans had been available, this situation may have been avoided."

Since Burks death, White has said that a broken healthcare system failed Burks.

Since the shooting is now part of active litigation, Chief White says the Detroit Police Department will no longer comment on the case.

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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