Detroit police change initial statements released in Porter Burks’ killing

Detroit Police Chief James White claimed Burks was too far from law enforcement for a taser to have any impact, despite initial claims that a stun gun was used and failed to stop the mentally ill man.

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Detroit police initially claimed they used a stun gun before shooting and killing 20-year-old Porter Burks, who was mentally ill, but they have since changed their story.

According to the Detroit Free Press, on Oct. 2, police fired 38 shots in three seconds at Burks, who suffered from schizophrenia, killing him. 

During a press conference on Tuesday, Detroit Police Chief James White said it is not clear whether police used a stun gun before they began firing their weapons. However, police initially said a stun gun was used. Before the press conference, Burks’ family members said they were told that their loved one was shot and tased “at the same time.”

Porter Burks shooting
Attorney Geoffrey Fieger and associates, representing the family of Porter Burks, the Detroit man killed by police Sunday during a mental health crisis, announced Thursday at a press conference they will be filing a lawsuit against the officers who shot 38 rounds. (Photo Credit: IMAGN/USA Today Network)

During the press conference, White also said Burks was out of taser range, ABC News reported. 

“It’s unfortunate but this was a life-threatening situation,” White said during the news conference. “This is a tragic situation. Any time we use force, it’s not the desired outcome. Any time we use fatal force, it’s the worst outcome.”

According to the Free Press, footage from the body camera of a crisis prevention officer captured the events leading up to the deadly shooting and was shown in snippets on Tuesday. 

Burks’ brother called police, informing them that the young man was having a mental health episode and that he had a pocket knife that he’d used earlier to slash the tires of his brother’s car.

In the bodycam footage, the crisis officer can be heard pleading with Burks to put down the 3.5-inch knife so they could get him some assistance. 

Burks, who did not relinquish the knife, can be heard saying that he wanted to rest. Next, though the footage is not clear, Burks appears to advance quickly toward officers. In turn, five officers —  who are currently on administrative leave, pending investigations — opened fire. Police believe 15 shots hit Burks. The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Officer will confirm the actual number.

Christopher Graveline, executive team director for the Detroit police, told ABC News that the department was aware of Burks’ mental health challenges. Police had responded to calls involving him several times, including two incidents in 2020 when Burks allegedly stabbed siblings.

Lawyers representing Burks’ family have said they plan to sue the police department. At a Thursday press conference, the Free Press reported, one lawyer accused Chief White of purposely misleading the public, terming his Tuesday press conference a “propaganda show.” Attorney Geoffrey Fieger said Burks was closer to 46 feet away from police when they fired, noting that it’s “absurd” to claim Burks lunged toward officers and was a threat.

“Why you can’t figure out a better way to deal with him than executing him by firing squad?” he asked rhetorically.

“You have all sorts of equipment, all that body armor that police have,” Fieger said. “They have helmets, they have arm and chest armor. They have bulletproof vests everywhere. Are you telling me that today, you don’t have sufficient equipment to send an officer toward somebody with a 3-inch knife and instead you have to execute him?

“If that’s crisis intervention, God help us all.”

In an extraordinary step, in response to Fieger’s assertions, the Detroit police released a statement refuting the attorney claims, “We normally do not comment on statements made by attorneys in litigation with the city, but some comments made by Mr. Fieger today cannot go uncorrected,” the statement read.

Among them were that officers tried to de-escalate the situation, an officer attempted measures to keep Burks alive en route to the hospital, officers stayed with Burks and engaged with medical personnel until Burks was pronounced dead, and that department had many safe outcomes dealing with “armed and mentally ill individuals.”

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