By George Hunter
The Detroit News
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DETROIT — The 22-year-old man who was fatally shot Sunday by officers after refusing their commands to drop a knife had a long history of mental illness and run-ins with Detroit police, including a June skirmish with cops while wearing a hospital gown following his escape from a psychiatric ward.
On Tuesday, Detroit police Chief James White showed an officer’s body-worn camera video of the early Sunday incident that led to the death of Porter Burks. The chief said during a press conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters that he wanted to be transparent about the situation.
It came a day after it was reported that five Detroit police officers, who fired 38 rounds in three seconds as Burke charged at one of them while holding the weapon, had been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation into the fatal shooting.
White said officers responded to a 5 a.m. 911 call reporting that a man with a knife was having a mental health crisis at an apartment on Littlefield Street on Detroit’s west side. Video showed a man identified as Burks’ brother telling officers, “He’s frantic and he has a knife. I’m concerned for people.”
White said officers canvassed the area and made it to the area of Snowden near Lyndon, where they found Burks holding an 8-inch knife walking in the middle of the street. The video clip shows officers trying to verbally de-escalate the situation.
A crisis intervention officer is seen on the video extending his hand and saying, “You’re not in any trouble, just drop the knife and we’ll get you some help.”
Multiple officers pleaded with Burks to drop the knife, but he refused, at one point telling the cops, “I don’t want to talk … I just want to get some rest.”
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The video then shows Burks suddenly charge at the officers with the knife in his right hand. Five officers fired their weapons, police officials said.
“Without warning, Burks charged at one of the officers,” White said. “Fearing for his safety, and the other officers fearing for their partner’s safety, (the officers) fired their weapons.
“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. Burks to a local hospital where he, unfortunately, was pronounced dead.”
“This is a tragic situation,” White continued. “Anytime we use force, it’s not the desired outcome. Anytime we use fatal force, it’s the worst outcome.”
The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office had not completed its autopsy Tuesday to determine how many times Burks was struck, but police said they believed he was shot as many as 15 times.
Detroit Police Director of Professional Standards and Constitutional Policing Christopher Graveline said Burks suffered from diagnosed schizophrenia, and that he often became violent.
“We’ve done our investigation into Mr. Burks’ past, and we found … unfortunately, a system that has failed Mr. Burks on several different occasions over the last several years,” Graveline said.
Graveline said police were called when Burks stabbed two family members in March 2020 and again in August 2020. Most recently, on June 26, the family called Detroit police because he was walking up and down the block looking to fight anyone, Graveline said.
Burks was admitted to Sinai-Grace Hospital’s psychological ward, although he escaped two days later, and encountered officers while walking in the middle of busy McNichols Road. During the incident, Burks punched an officer in the face and three other officers helped detain Burks, Graveline said.
Graveline said he isn’t sure why Sinai-Grace released Burks following that incident but said the issue is part of the investigation. Detroit Medical Center spokesman Brian Taylor did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.
After the alleged encounter, a judge signed a warrant authorizing Burks’ arrest on charges of assaulting/resisting/obstructing a police officer, Graveline said. Burks was wanted by police when he was killed, although police officials said it was unclear whether the officers knew that Sunday.
“We have seen a pattern of (Burks) being brought to psychological services and being released and not being followed up with taking his medication,” Graveline said.
More than five officers were on the scene when the incident occurred, but only five fired their weapons, Graveline said. Per Detroit police policy, the officers involved will remain on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
When there are officer-involved shootings, a dual-track investigation is conducted within DPD, Graveline said. A criminal probe is being led by Michigan State Police. Once MSP concludes its investigation, the department will submit a warrant request to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for independent review. The police department is also conducting an internal investigation.
Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger issued a press release Monday announcing he was representing Burks’ family, although he said he hadn’t filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
“When we have sufficient evidence and an understanding of the facts of the case we will report to the media and the public,” the press release said. “We are working hard to understand how and why a mentally ill citizen, whose family called for help, was tased and then reportedly shot over 30 times.”
About 30 people, including Burks’ mother, Quieauna Wilson, and his aunt, Michelle Wilson, appeared at Public Safety Headquarters prior to Tuesday’s press conference. Police officials briefly spoke with Quierauna Wilson and other relatives in an office, but family members were not allowed into the press conference.
“We’re not letting them inside because the press conference is just for the media,” police spokesman Rudy Harper said prior to Tuesday’s press briefing.
Outside police headquarters following the press conference, Michelle Wilson called her nephew’s killing “a straight-up murder.”
“If anyone out there has a family member or a loved one (in crisis), help them yourself,” she said through tears. “Don’t call 911; they might not make it.”
White says the department is seeing more violent incidents involving people with mental health issues.
“Candidly, we’re seeing more and more violent episodes like the one we saw with Officer (Loren) Courts, who was murdered by someone who was having a mental health episode,” said White, referring to the officer who was fatally shot July 6 when he and his partner were ambushed while responding to a 911 call reporting shots fired near Joy Road and Marlowe Street on Detroit’s west side.
In March, Detroit police officials expanded the Mental Health Co-Response Partnership, a program that partners with the Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network to deploy behavioral health specialists to some police runs.
The program does not include the 2nd Precinct where the incident occurred, although each police precinct, including the 2nd Precinct, has officers who are part of a Critical Incident Team that’s trained to deal with mental health issues.
Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said a Critical Incident Team member was present who tried to de-escalate the situation on Sunday.
Police rolled out a trial program in the 3rd Precinct in 2019, in which some mental health professionals accompanied officers on runs. The program was officially launched in December 2020 and expanded to include the 9th Precinct. Another expansion in March added the 4th, 8th, 9th and 12th Precincts, along with Downtown Services to the program.
Detroit police calls for service involving mental illness increased 10% from 7,209 in 2020 to 7,935 in 2021, according to police statistics. Officers in the 2nd Precinct last year responded to 681 calls involving “mental crisis.” There were 983 mental crisis runs in the 8th Precinct last year, the most in the city.
During Tuesday’s press conference, White said he hoped to expand the Mental Health Co-Response Partnership to all police precincts by the end of the year.
“This is a system that has failed Mr. Burks, and failed Mr. Burks’ family because they tried to get him help,” White said. “The mental health crisis in this country is very real, and the mental health crisis in this city is very real.”
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