Prosecutor won’t charge Detroit cops who shot Porter Burks 19 times

Burks was experiencing a mental health crisis when he lunged at police with a knife

click to enlarge A Detroit police squad car. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
A Detroit police squad car.

Five Detroit police officers who fatally shot Porter Burks, a 20-year-old man experiencing a mental health crisis, acted in “self-defense” and won’t be charged with a crime, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Wednesday.

The unnamed officers shot Burks 19 times in three seconds after he lunged at them with a knife shortly after 5 a.m. on Oct. 2.

“This is a truly tragic case,” Worthy said. “Mr. Burks had a long history of mental illness and violent behavior and a propensity for carrying knives that had been communicated by his family to the responding officers.”

The shooting occurred after Burks’ brother called 911 and said Burks was walking around the neighborhood with a knife and having a “really bad episode.” Burks had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

When police arrived, they urged Burks to drop the knife and said they wanted to get him help. He refused to comply and eventually ran toward the officers, prompting them to fire 39 bullets at him.

An ambulance wasn’t available, so police transported Burks to the hospital, where he was declared dead.

“The police spent a significant amount of time trying to get him to drop his weapon,” Worthy said. “He suddenly ran at them with the knife and covered the distance between them in approximately three seconds. Eyewitnesses to the shooting were interviewed and indicated that the police did all that they could to de-escalate the situation before Mr. Burks charged at the police. Unfortunately, Mr. Burks was fatally shot by the officers in self-defense and defense of others.”

Detroit Police Chief James White said Worthy's investigation "confirms that the actions of our officers were justified under the circumstances."

But, White said, the encounter with someone experiencing a mental health crisis underscores the importance of providing additional services to help those in need.

“The death of Porter Burks remains a tragic event that continues to call attention to the need for additional resources for those suffering from mental illness,” White said. “This includes reinstituting long-term mental health treatment centers, greater awareness of behavioral health challenges and additional training. It also includes recognizing our responsibility as a community to provide support, encouragement, and assistance to individuals in mental distress.”

White added that the city is working to improve how the police department responds to people experiencing mental health illnesses.

“Enhancing and expanding mental health response and increasing crisis stabilization services remains a top priority for Mayor Duggan and the Detroit Police Department,” White said. “We will continue to work with city departments and our community partners in this endeavor.”

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the five officers, alleging gross negligence, assault and battery, wanton and willful misconduct, and a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because of Burks’s mental illness.

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