DETROIT – The family of a Black man who was fatally shot by Detroit police while he was experiencing a mental health crisis is suing the city and the officers involved for $50 million, the family’s lawyer announced Tuesday.
Relatives of Porter Burks cried as their attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, described where 19 bullets struck the 20-year-old’s body in early October.
“The autopsy report indicates no shots were fired in close range, and that he was hit at least 19 times. He was executed by shots to the head, to the face, to the chest, to the arms, to the legs,” Fieger said during a news conference.
Fieger announced a lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court on behalf of Quieauna Wilson, Burks’ mother, against the city of Detroit and the five police officers who shot her son. The lawsuit alleges gross negligence; assault, battery, wanton and willful misconduct; violation of the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act; and a violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
Police Chief James White said officers responded to a 911 call Oct. 2 about a man armed with a knife who was in mental distress and inside an apartment on Detroit’s west side. Officers spoke to a man who identified himself as Burks’ brother. The man said Burks, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, had slashed the tires on his car. Police said last month five officers fired 38 shots in three seconds at Burks after he lunged at officers.
Edited video from a crisis intervention officer’s body camera footage shows Burks was a good distance away from officers when he was shot.
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Police previously said Burks was as close as 6 feet to officers when the last shot was fired.
According to the autopsy report from the Wayne County Medical Examiner, there was no evidence of close-range firing. The autopsy report also did not note any injuries on Burks’ body by stun gun. Police initially said Burks was first shot at with a stun gun, but later backtracked.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for the execution of Porter Burks under the facts and circumstances of this case. The Detroit police had a myriad of alternatives available other than executing him by firing squad,” Fieger said.
Officers should have known that people experiencing a mental health crisis “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,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges Detroit police violated numerous department policies, including a policy that states its primary concern is to protect citizens and those with mental illness.
Fieger also claims police violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to provide sufficient information or evidence in the case, including unedited, full police footage and the names of the five officers who killed Burks. In the complaint, the officers are listed as John Doe, except for one officer listed as Shawn Doe.
Numerous members of Burks’ family and local activists have held rallies and called into City Council meetings, demanding the names of the five officers be released.
White released a statement Tuesday afternoon advocating for more mental health resources.
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“The Department reiterates that the shooting of Porter Burks was truly a tragic event,” White wrote. “We firmly believe that if appropriate mental health facilities and treatment plans had been available, this situation may have been avoided. Regrettably, the DPD remains the primary emergency response service for individuals suffering from mental health emergencies.”
The department will decline any further comment because of the pending litigation, White added.
A spokesperson for the city declined Tuesday to comment.
The edited video footage of the killing released by police raised more questions about what Detroit’s crisis intervention team is, how police are trained to respond to a mental health crisis and why Porter was killed even with de-escalation protocols in place. Speaking on Tuesday, Fieger reiterated there should have been other alternatives explored.
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“The police used deadly force immediately and nothing else,” Fieger said.
In the video released by police, a crisis intervention officer can be seen with his hand out to Burks, repeatedly telling Burks he was there to help, asking Burks to put the knife down.
“I just want to help you, man, OK? Can you do me a favor and drop the knife?” the officer said. “Can you drop the knife for me? Please? Please, whatever you’re going through, I can help you. Porter, you’re not in any trouble, man.”
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Burks responses were mostly inaudible, but he could be heard saying that he wanted to rest. He did not put the knife down.
Later, the footage appears to show Burks attempt to possibly run toward or quickly approach the officers, but the video isn’t clear. Police began shooting immediately. Fieger said Burks had his hands up when he was shot.
Fieger emphasized on Tuesday that the state has “defunded mental health,” leaving police who train with weapons to deal with those experiencing mental illness.
“If, in our society, we don’t understand that you don’t shoot sick people 19 times … when they are having a psychotic break,” Fieger said, “then we’ve lost our way as a society.”
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Contributing: The Associated Press
Andrea Sahouri covers criminal justice for the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @andreamsahouri.
Story Credit: usatoday.com