Family of a 20-year-old shot by police 19 times during a mental health crisis is suing the city and five unidentified officers

By Michelle Watson and Christina Maxouris, CNNUpdated: Wed, 02 Nov 2022 03:00:02 GMTSource: CNNThe family of a 20-year-old Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally sho

By Michelle Watson and Christina Maxouris, CNN

Updated: Wed, 02 Nov 2022 03:00:02 GMT

Source: CNN

The family of a 20-year-old Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by police is suing the city of Detroit and five police officers, family attorney Geoffrey Fieger said.

Fieger announced the $50 million wrongful death suit on Tuesday, the same day it was filed in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Porter Burks, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, was experiencing a psychotic break on the morning of October 2, 2022, before he was fatally shot by police, Detroit Police Chief James White said last month.

His brother had called police to ask that they help get Burks safely to a hospital for treatment, according to the lawsuit. Police said that after confronting Burks on a nearby street and repeatedly asking him to drop a knife, he refused and eventually charged at one of the responding officers, according to White.

Five officers fired 38 shots at him in roughly three seconds, police previously said. According to the autopsy report from the Wayne County Medical Examiner, provided to CNN by the family attorney, Burks had 19 gunshot wounds, including two in his head and six in his chest.

"If in our society we don't understand that you don't shoot sick people 19 times in the head and the face when they're having a psychotic break and when there's ... a handful of other nonviolent means in order to deal with them, then we've lost our way," Fieger said during Tuesday's news conference.

The killing adds to a list of fatal encounters between police and Americans suffering a mental health crisis. Experts have said the killings highlight a dire need to revisit who responds to these emergencies and how.

"I was asked the last occasion I was here what would I say to families if they're having a mental health crisis, should they call the police, which is the only people they can call? And my answer is no," Fieger said.

Police have not named the officers involved

The complaint, filed by Fieger on behalf of Burks' mother Quieauna Wilson, who represents her son's estate, accuses five unknown Detroit police officers of gross negligence, assault and battery and wanton and willful misconduct. It also accuses the city of Detroit of violating both the state's Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act, which requires government entities to make information available to the public upon request, with some exceptions.

Detroit police have not named the officers involved.

"The chief has failed to provide the names of the officers who were involved" in Burks' killing, Fieger said Tuesday, despite a direct request from the family attorney. "To date, for the last two weeks, I've received nothing," the attorney said.

In an email to CNN, the police department said, "All officers are on paid administrative leave. There (have) been no resignations. This is an ongoing investigation."

White, the police chief, held a news conference two days after the fatal shooting during which police played clips of the body cam footage. But the agency has not made the full footage available to the public.

"Despite our requests, (police) have not been forthcoming with any information," the family attorney said. "I mean zero information, to me or the family. We will obtain those tapes," Fieger said.

The Michigan State Police, which is overseeing the investigation into the incident, previously told CNN that a task force comprised of Detroit police officers and state police detectives is investigating the incident. CNN reached out to state police for an update on the investigation's status, but has not received a response.

In addition to all the documents related to the shooting and investigation, the family is also seeking damages, plus "costs, interest and attorney fees," according to the suit.

How the shooting unfolded

As a result of his schizophrenia, Burks could become paranoid and "many times felt threatened if seeing or hearing things that were not there," according to the family's lawsuit. He had been taken to the hospital before, by both police and his family, the suit alleged.

Early in the morning of October 2, Burks' brother called 911 after the 20-year-old came to the family residence with a pocketknife, the suit said. (The previous night, Burks' mother had also called police asking them for help getting her son to a hospital safely for treatment, but Burks had walked away before police arrived, according to the complaint.)

One of the officers who responded to the brother's call was a member of the department's Crisis Intervention Team, whose members undergo more than 48 hours of training to deal with mental health crises and deescalation, the police chief said in last month's news conference.

According to the family's lawsuit, officers found Burks walking alone on a street nearby and "instructed a confused, exhausted and mentally ill young man to put down his pocketknife."

Burks repeatedly refused to do so, White, the police chief, had said in October. In the body cam clips released by police, officers are heard telling Burks they were there to help him with whatever he wanted and that they could help get him home. An officer is also heard telling Burks they want to talk to him, to which he responds, "I don't want to talk," and that he wants to get some rest.

At the same time, the lawsuit alleges, officers were "pointing guns directly at him."

Burks then charged at one of the officers without warning, White had said. "The officer fearing for his safety, and the other officers fearing for their partner's safety, fired their weapons," the chief said. "Despite this horrific act, the officers were able to quickly transition to a first aid mode and began to render first aid."

In the edited body cam clip released by police, Burks appears to begin running in the officers' direction with his arms raised. The video cuts off as the first shots are fired. Burks was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead, the chief had said.

The Detroit Police Department previously said in a statement that one officer performed chest compressions on Burks in the back of a 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.

According to the family lawsuit, Burks' body was handcuffed when he was brought to the hospital.

"This should never have happened, it should not happen again," Fieger, the family attorney said. "This lawsuit hopefully will be a means to initiate change in the department. I believe that police officers shouldn't be responsible for caring for mentally ill people, but they should not be responding with deadly force to people who obviously are suffering mental health problems."