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Detroit officers fired 38 shots at a 20-year-old Black man experiencing a mental health crisis, police say

<i>Andrea Sahouri/USA Today Network</i><br/>Attorney Geoffrey Fieger addresses the death of Porter Burks
Andrea Sahouri / USA TODAY NETWO
Andrea Sahouri/USA Today Network
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger addresses the death of Porter Burks

By Emma Tucker and Hannah Sarisohn, CNN

A 20-year-old Black man was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed this week after five Detroit police officers fired 38 shots at him in roughly three seconds, according to police.

Porter Burks, who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, was experiencing a psychotic break on Sunday morning when his brother called police and told officers who responded to the call that he was concerned for Burks and community safety, according to Detroit Police Chief James White.

Burks’ brother told the officers when they arrived at the scene that Burks was experiencing a mental health crisis and was armed with a knife and had slashed the tires on his brother’s car, White said on Tuesday during a news conference. One of the responding officers was on the department’s Crisis Intervention Team, whose members undergo more than 48 hours of training to deal with mental health crises and deescalation, White added.

Burks repeatedly refused to put down the knife, despite officers’ alleged deescalation attempts, the chief said. He then charged at one of the officers without warning, White added.

“The officer fearing his safety, and the other officers fearing for their partner’s safety, fired their weapons,” White said. “Despite this horrific act, the officers were able to quickly transition to a first aid mode and began to render first aid.”

“The officers then conveyed Mr. Porter Burks to a local hospital where he unfortunately was pronounced dead,” White added.

The five officers, who the chief did not identify, have been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of a state investigation, White said.

The Detroit Police Department said in a statement that one officer performed chest compressions on Burks in the back of the police car “the entire way to the hospital in an attempt to keep him alive” and officers remained with him until he was pronounced dead.

The Michigan State Police, which is overseeing the investigation into the incident, told CNN that the Homicide Task Force, which is comprised of Detroit police officers and MSP detectives, is investigating the incident.

“Once the Investigation is complete we will send it to the prosecutor for a charging decision,” state police said.

CNN has reached out to the Detroit Police Department to obtain a copy of the initial incident report but did not receive a response.

System has ‘failed’ victim

Christopher Graveline, director of the DPD’s Professional Standards Bureau, said during the Tuesday press conference that the system has “failed” Burks on several different occasions.

Over the past several years, Graveline said, police were called multiple times due to Burks’ violent behavior resulting from his mental disorder. In March 2020, Burks stabbed his sister in her neck and the top of her hand and then stabbed his brother on the top of his head after he came to defend the sister, Graveline said. In August 2020, Burks stabbed his 7-year-old stepsister in the neck, Graveline said.

On June 26 of this year, according to Graveline, Burks’ family called Detroit police after he began walking in the neighborhood “looking to fight anyone.” He was then committed to the Sinai-Grace Behavioral Health Center, Graveline said, but Detroit police received a call two days later that said Burks escaped the ward and was running through traffic.

When police attempted to detain him, Burks punched one of the officers in the face, Graveline said.

“What we have seen is a pattern of him being brought to receive psychological services and being released, and/or not being followed up with taking his medication and violent behavior,” Graveline said.

Attorney blames mental health system

Burks was on medication for his mental disorder when the Sunday incident took place. However, because medications aren’t always effective, Burks suffered a psychotic break, Geoffrey Fieger, the Burks family attorney, said during a Thursday press conference.

The Fieger press conference came days after the DPD held a news conference during which they played clips of the body camera footage from the incident. However, the agency has not yet made the full footage available to the public.

Fieger said he’s at odds with White’s description of the incident during Tuesday’s news conference, specifically the chief’s statement that the department has “highly trained police officers.”

“If the training consists of executing clearly mentally ill young men or women, that training is grossly inadequate, deficient and nonsensical,” Fieger said. “You don’t shoot people who are suffering psychotic breaks from schizophrenia.”

The attorney also said police handcuffed Burks’ dead body before taking him to the hospital. Multiple law enforcement experts have told CNN it is common practice nationwide to handcuff a person perceived to be dangerous and armed — even after they are shot by police — so the person cannot access weapons or pose any further threat.

Fieger placed blame on Michigan’s lack of long-term mental health hospitals, which he said puts the onus on police and prisons to deal with people experiencing mental health crises. He added that the defunding of mental health facilities in Michigan “has to stop.”

“People don’t understand there’s no such thing as mental hospitals in this state. If you think you can get long-term care for a mentally ill individual in the state of Michigan, you are whistling Dixie,” Fieger said. “It doesn’t exist.”

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