DETROIT – Attorney Geoffrey Fieger spoke Thursday on behalf of the family of Porter Burks, a man who was shot and killed by Detroit police during a mental health check this weekend.
The family retained Fieger after five officers fired a total of 38 shots at Burks, killing him early Sunday morning. Police said the shooting was prompted by Burks charging at them with a knife.
“We have what I considered to be an intolerable situation that occurred in the city of Detroit, in which a clearly mentally ill young man was executed by a Detroit Police Department firing squad of five officers firing, reportedly, 38 times towards or into his body,” Fieger said.
Fieger said a lawsuit will be filed against the officers and the Detroit Police Department once Burks’ mother is appointed as the personal representative of the estate.
You can watch Fieger’s full remarks in the video above.
On Tuesday (Oct. 4), Detroit police Chief James White showed body camera footage of what happened that morning. He said he wanted to provide the update in an “abundance of transparency.”
The chief said officers are trained to “stop the threat,” so they fired dozens of shots in the matter of three seconds when Burks charged at them with a weapon.
You can watch the full Detroit police briefing in the video below. (NOTE: A few seconds have been edited to remove video of the moment Burks was shot.)
An autopsy is being conducted Thursday to determine how many times Burks was struck by gunfire, according to Fieger.
“If the training consists of executing clearly mentally ill young men or women, that training is grossly inadequate, deficient, and nonsensical,” Fieger said.
Fieger said the purpose of White’s briefing on Tuesday was provide “propaganda” and “cover” for what really happened.
“Now, Chief White, please explain to me why when you’ve got a young, 20-year-old, mentally ill young man, who’s saying, I believe, on the video, ‘I just want to go home and rest,’ why you can’t figure out a better way to deal with him than executing him by firing squad,” Fieger said. “I’m a lawyer. I’m not a police professional. I don’t claim to be. But if Porter Burks was an animal, a vicious animal, a tiger, a lion, you know how to shoot him with tranquilizing gun. Why would you shoot him with 38 bullets? Why would you treat him worse than a wild animal? Why would you do that?
“You have all sorts of equipment. You said you turned off all the vehicles. If you were afraid of a three-inch knife, roll up the windows of your vehicle and drive up to him. Bring one of those armored vehicles that you use for bomb disposal. They can’t be hurt by a three-inch knife. How about all that body armor? All that body armor that police have? 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 three-inch knife, and instead you have to execute him, beginning at 45 feet? That’s patently absurd.”
Police respond to Fieger
Here is a statement from the Detroit Police Department in response to Fieger’s comments.
Officers called to home by family member
“Upon arrival some three minutes later, officers spoke to a family member who advised them that his brother, a 22-year-old by the name of Mr. Porter Burks, was suffering from a mental health condition, and that he was, in fact, in crisis,” White said. “He also advised the officer that Mr. Burks was armed with a knife, and that he was concerned about Mr. Burks’ safety, as well as the community’s safety.”
The brother told police that Burks had slashed the tires on his vehicle, White said.
Burks shot, killed
Officers said they found Burks in the area of Snowden Avenue and Lyndon Street. He was walking in the middle of the street while holding a knife in his right hand, according to authorities.
The folding-blade knife is about eight and a half inches long, White said. The blade is about three inches long, according to Fieger.
The chief said a member of the department’s crisis intervention team spoke with Burks and tried to get him to drop the knife. Body camera footage shows multiple officers speaking to Burks from a short distance down the street.
“This officer told Mr. Burks that he was not in any trouble once he made contact with him, and that the officers were there to give him some help, but he needed to put the knife down,” White said.
He said Burks refused to put the knife down. Officers were trying to form a plan that included one of them preparing a Taser for use, according to White.
“Does somebody have a taser around here?” one of the officers could be heard asking on the body camera footage.
“As they were trying to negotiate with Mr. Burks, without warning, Mr. Burks charged at one of our officers with the knife in his hand,” White said. “The officer, fearing for his safety, and the other officers, fearing for their partner’s safety, fired their weapons.”
Burks was about six feet away from officers when the final shot was fired, according to the chief. That’s too far away for a Taser to be effective, he said.
Fieger contests that Burks might have been as far as 46 feet away when officers started firing shots.
“As best we can determine at this time, 38 shots in three seconds were fired,” said lead investigator Christopher Graveline, director of professional standards and constitutional policing. “There were five officers who fired their weapon. At this point, it appears that (Burks) has 15 wounds on his body.”
The medical examiner will investigate those wounds further to determine how many times Burks was struck by gunfire, Graveline said.
“The officers had to stop the threat,” White said. “They felt threatened. Officers also on the scene had to assess the threat and stop the threat. There’s no time in three seconds and someone charging at you with a knife to look over to see what other people are doing. You, as a trained police officer, are trained to stop the threat. Multiple officers fired, as we’ve indicated, and that’s part of their training, because you see someone being advanced upon with a knife.”
White said officers rendered first aid to Burks and brought him to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The officers involved are on administrative leave until the conclusion of the investigation. The findings will be turned over to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for assessment of the case.
Family reacts to police briefing
Family members of Burks spoke to Local 4 following the release of the police body camera footage.
They said they tried to get into the police briefing on Tuesday, but they were denied. After watching the briefing online, they told Local 4 they have a very different take on how the situation unfolded.
Family members believe police are responsible for Burks’ death.
“I hate to say, if anyone out here that has a family member, a loved one, or even a neighbor who’s suffering from mental illness: Help them yourself,” one family member said. “Don’t call 911. They might not make it. Don’t call for help. Don’t call -- please don’t call. If you love your loved one, try to help them yourself.”
Investigation into Burks’ past
Graveline said part of the DPD investigation involved looking back at previous encounters with Burks.
“What we have found is, unfortunately, a system that has failed Mr. Burks on several different occasions,” he said. “Over the last several years, there have been multiple times when police have been called due to Mr. Burks’ violent behavior, and has sought him to be committed into the mental health system.”
Burks suffered from schizophrenia, which manifested itself into “violent behavior,” according to Graveline.
He said that in March 2020, Burks stabbed two family members. He stabbed his sister in her neck and hand, as well as his brother in the top of his head as he came to defend their sister, according to authorities.
In August 2020, Burks stabbed his seven-and-a-half-year-old stepsister in the neck, officials said.
Fieger disputes police claims, saying Burks was never arrested or charged with any crime.
“Porter Burks never seriously injured any of his family members,” Fieger said. “Did several of his siblings get cut? Yes. But there was a recognition that he was mentally ill and that this was not an intentional or dangerous occurrence, but rather a mental health, a psychotic break.”
Fieger said Burks suffered from a disease known as paranoid schizophrenia. He said Burks was suffering from a “psychotic break,” which he believes should be treated in the same manner as someone having a heart attack.
“Most recently, on June 26, the family called Detroit police out because he was walking up and down the block, looking to fight anyone,” Graveline said. “He was committed at that point to Sinai Grace psychological ward. Two days later, Detroit police received a call that he had escaped from that ward and was running in the traffic on McNichols.”
Police tried to chase Burks down as he ran in and out of traffic in his hospital attire, Graveline said. They caught up with him, and he punched an officer in the face, according to authorities.
“At that point, we deployed a Taser,” Graveline said. “That Taser did not take effect. It was only once three other officers -- so four, in total -- were able to detain him at that time.”
Burks was returned to the hospital, and a not-in-custody warrant package for resisting and obstructing a police officer was submitted to Wayne County prosecutors, Graveline said. That was signed July 21, and a warrant was issued July 28.
He was “apparently” released from the hospital, according to Graveline. At the time, he had an active warrant for his arrest.
“What we have seen is a pattern of him being brought to receive psychological services, and being released and/or not being followed up with taking his medication, and violent behavior,” Graveline said.
Neighbors react to shooting
Darlene Embry is still processing how Burks, her neighbor, was killed.
“He was like my son,” Embry said. “I’m so hurt for this.
“He don’t have a car. He walks to the store. For them to shoot him -- he had no gun. He had a knife.”
Dimitrius Roberson-Bey said several of the officers’ shots struck his bus, which was parked nearby.
“It’s reckless, because I’ve got five bullet holes in my bus, and y’all shot a guy down that only had a knife,” Roberson-Bey said. “If you’re looking at this from where they say this happened at, to me, it looks like they were just trying to shoot at his head. For bullets to be going that high -- it’s not good.”
Family hires Fieger
Fieger released a statement after being hired by Burks’ family.
“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,” Fieger said.