The Detroit City Council is seeking “accountability and transparency” from Police Chief James White after officers fatally shot a man diagnosed with schizophrenia who was experiencing a mental health crisis.
White convened a Tuesday afternoon press conference at Detroit’s Public Safety Headquarters to discuss and release a portion of body camera footage from the “tragic” incident. Officers were called to the Littlefield neighborhood on Detroit’s west side early Sunday by the brother of Porter Burks, 22. Family members sought help to send a “frantic” Burks to a hospital and told police they were concerned for others’ safety.
White said Burks, who has a history of violence and mental health issues, was armed with a knife and “in crisis” in the middle of the street. White said officers trained in crisis intervention and conflict de-escalation strategies pleaded with Burks to drop the knife for four minutes, but he ultimately charged police “without provocation,” prompting officers to shoot him, the chief said.
“Certainly, again, (this was) not the desired outcome,” White said. “My condolences to the Burks family. This is not what we wanted.”
Thirty-eight shots were fired between five police officers in just three seconds. Burks, who died that morning after being transported to a hospital, had 15 wounds on his body. Police said the Wayne County medical examiner has yet to confirm how many times Burks was shot.
“The officers had to stop the threat,” White said. “They felt threatened … There’s no time in three seconds and someone charging at you with a knife to look over and see what other people are doing.
“You, as a trained police officer, are trying to stop the threat,” he said. “Multiple officers fired as we’ve indicated, and that’s part of their training.”
White vouched for the department’s crisis intervention training but said the five officers who fired their weapons have been placed on administrative leave. Michigan State Police are reviewing the evidence to determine whether a crime occurred. An internal DPD investigation will follow, police said. Wayne County’s prosecutor is responsible for deciding whether charges are filed against the officers.
White played clips Tuesday of body camera footage that showed the responding officers speaking with Burks’ brother and a portion of their interaction with Burks. The video ends just as Burks begins to move toward the officers.
White said Burks came within six feet of police when they stopped firing. A preliminary investigation suggests one officer fired his taser, but White said that’s unclear.
White addressed the public and released the footage hours after Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero asked DPD to make it public, saying “we need accountability and transparency” from the department.
Council Member Mary Waters described the shooting as a police “execution” during the council’s Tuesday formal session. Waters said White should come before the council to answer questions about “the police behaving like a firing squad.”
The council unanimously approved a motion introduced by Waters asking the Law Department to issue an opinion on how the council should convene this discussion. David Whitaker, director of the Legislative Policy Division, noted the panel might need a closed session to discuss the incident since it concerns an ongoing investigation.
“I love and respect our police but a firing squad-like execution is not how DPD should be responding,” Waters said. “We need answers. We want the chief here. Nobody else will do.”
Detroiters who called in for public comment during Tuesday’s council session said Burks’ death shows why some are wary of calling the police. Rai Lanier, executive director of Michigan Liberation, said police are “not a mental health solution,” and situations like this give her less confidence to call 911.
Council Member Coleman Young said he has questions for the chief about personnel misconduct records and body camera footage, based on concerns raised by community members.
Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway introduced another motion that passed Tuesday asking the Law Department to determine whether police tasers are defective. Whitfield-Calloway noted that two young Black men were shot with tasers in recent weeks to little effect.
Whitfield-Calloway argued that the failure of a taser to subdue Burks on Sunday “cost a young man his life.”
In addition to Sunday’s shooting, Whitfield-Calloway pointed to a Sept. 21 incident where police tried to incapacitate a man ranting while carrying a baby on Detroit’s west side. Officers shocked him with a taser after he put the child inside a police cruiser but the man kept running, according to police.
White said he released clips of body camera footage to be transparent and address misinformation, though he did not get into specifics.
White said officers deployed “effective strategy” in their efforts to calm Burks down while other officers could circle behind him. The situation changed when Burks “escalated” the situation, he said.
Chris Graveline, director of the DPD’s Professional Standards section, said Burks had several interactions in recent years with police and the mental health system for violent behavior. Burks was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a serious mental health disorder that can dramatically affect how a person thinks and behaves.
“What we have found is, unfortunately, a system that has failed Mr. Burks on several different occasions over the last several years,” Graveline said.
Police said Burks allegedly stabbed three family members across two incidents in 2020, including his 7-year-old stepsister, officials said. Burks’ family called police on June 26 and he was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Sinai-Grace Behavioral Health Center, police said.
Graveline said DPD was called two days later, when Burks escaped from the hospital. Burks allegedly punched an officer who attempted to chase Burks as he ran in and out of traffic on McNichols Avenue during the summertime incident. The officer used his taser, but Graveline said it “did not take effect” and four officers were needed to detain him.
Burks was returned to the hospital, Graveline said, and a warrant was issued on July 28 to arrest him for resisting and obstructing police. Graveline said it’s unclear how Burks left the hospital after that.
White, also a licensed mental health therapist, said Burks didn’t get the care he needed.
“I think the bigger discussion needs to be not what the police are doing with mental health, but who else is helping us with mental health issues,” White said. “We can train up all the officers, but when you have a situation where someone is coming in contact with the mental health system, and they are a violent person, we’ve got to get them to help.”
White said the incident shows the severity of a “mental health crisis” in Detroit and across the country. The police chief noted Officer Loren Counts was killed July 6 by a teen who was experiencing a “mental health episode,” and on Aug. 28, he said, a man randomly shot four people, killing three.
Waters said the city needs to create a hotline for people to report a mental health emergency so police don’t need to get involved. Waters called for a “danger to others” hotline earlier this summer, but said city officials pushed back against her request.
“I was told by the administration, ‘no, let them call the 911 number,’ and we see what has happened, right? The police go out with guns blazing,” Waters argued Tuesday. “I need the administration to revisit that. It is not going to work, sending police officers out there when people mentally ill. We’ve got to do something different.”
Council President Mary Sheffield said the council could allocate budget dollars to create a crisis intervention hotline, but it would likely require partnerships with city departments to run the program.
The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority has a 24-hour crisis helpline at (800) 241-4949.