A deadly mix
Desmond Phillips died in a county where fatal interactions between law enforcement and the mentally ill are double the national average
David Phillips is tormented by visions of his son falling to the ground, his body riddled with bullets fired by Chico police officers who came to his West Fourth Avenue apartment after he’d asked for medical aid for 25-year-old Desmond, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis.
“They murdered my child, and I saw them do it,” Phillips said during a recent interview at his home, where Desmond was killed March 17. A bullet hole scars the living room wall just a few feet from the television set, pictures of the victim’s face stare back from scattered stacks of glossy handbills reading “Justice for Desmond,” and it’s impossible to enter the home without walking directly over the spot where Desmond took his last breath.
“I watched them empty their guns on him,” Phillips continued, his voice wavering between grief and anger. “I knew he was dead before he hit the ground.”
Desmond’s shooting, by officers Jeremy Gagnebin and Alex Fliehr, was declared justified on April 13 by District Attorney Mike Ramsey, based on the results of an investigation by the Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. However, a chorus of questions about Desmond’s death remains.
The Phillips family and supporters take issue with many of the details of the shooting and results of the investigation. The incident has also sparked unprecedented local discourse about the interactions between law enforcement and those afflicted with mental illness, including concerns about the competency of local agencies and their employees and the adequacy of their training. Compounding the issue is a dearth of resources for mentally ill members of the community and their family members.
It’s proven to be a deadly combination of factors.
Locally, the percentage of fatal encounters involving mentally ill people and law enforcement is more than double the national average, according to the CN&R’s analysis of civilian deaths at the hands of police over the last 20 years. That research indicates 16 of the 28—or 57 percent—killed suffered from mental illness (see sidebar page 21).
Nationally, according to reports by The Washington Post and The Guardian, both of which maintain databases on police shootings, mental illness played a role in roughly one-quarter of all shooting deaths by police in the United States in 2015. A report that same year by nonprofit organization Treatment Advocacy Center, in conjunction with the National Sheriffs’ Association, titled “Overlooked in the Undercounted,” cites that percentage and also reports that people with mental illness are 16 times more likely than those without to die during encounters with law enforcement.
The stats are particularly striking considering research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported at MentalHealth.gov: “Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3 [percent] to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”
The family of Robert Battaglia, who was killed by Butte County Sheriff’s Office deputies in Paradise on Dec. 29, 2014, can relate to the Phillips family. Sister Alli Battaglia and mother Alynn Brutsman, who spoke to CN&R by phone recently, are still searching for answers in Robert’s death. Both described him as a gentle soul, the youngest of six siblings in a musical family.
Battaglia said her brother started having problems after using “a lot of LSD.” He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia in 2007. His illness was managed by medication, but he’d stopped taking it in the weeks leading up to his death.
Two weeks before the fatal encounter, Brutsman called 911 to report her son needed help, and she said responding deputies took no action other than to suggest she kick him out of the house. When she called again on Christmas Day, Robert was taken to the emergency room to determine if he met criteria for 5150, law enforcement code for a 72-hour mental health hold.
Brutsman was told by clinicians that he didn’t need hospitalization. “Part of our frustration was not being able to get him help when we knew he needed it,” she said. “That was four days before he was shot.”
Brutsman called 911 again the day Robert died after she noticed he had broken a window in her home. “They showed up Rambo-style with their bullet-proof vests and guns,” she said of responding deputies Hugh Hooks and William Brewton.
Brutsman said she stood outside the doorway as the officers entered the house to find Robert at the opposite end of a long hallway. “He told them he didn’t want to talk to them, he wanted to talk to his mother, at which point they could have just said, ‘She’s right here, step outside,’ but they didn’t.”
According to the CN&R’s coverage of that investigation, that’s when Robert stepped into the kitchen, retrieved a knife and charged at deputies. In the ensuing struggle, Brewton suffered a 3-inch-long cut on his throat and Robert was shot dead. Brutsman said her view of the melee was blocked by a closed door, but that she heard the gunshot within seconds of the deputies entering the home. She said the family wanted to legally challenge Ramsey’s conclusion the shooting was justified, but that they couldn’t find a lawyer willing to represent them.
“People in the medical profession handle things like this all the time without shooting anybody,” Brutsman said.
“Our biggest concern now is to stop this from happening in the future,” Battaglia added. “Why is it there’s nobody else you can call? Why aren’t these officers better trained? What happened to my brother did not need to happen. Robert did not have to die.”
The same sentiment has been repeated countless times by the Phillips family and their advocates. They also had sought help for Desmond, resulting in multiple contacts with mental health and law enforcement personnel since he’d come to live with his father in Chico last year.
Desmond reportedly showed no signs of mental illness before a violent altercation with Sacramento police last June. Ramsey’s report, based on his communications with the Sacramento Police Department about that encounter, said Desmond was found lying across railroad tracks and that he’d struggled with officers who tried to move him.
The Phillips family claims he sustained a brain injury and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of that incident (though the investigation report notes “no gross evidence of a traumatic brain injury was found” during an autopsy by the Butte County Coroner’s Office). The altercation landed Phillips in the intensive care unit of Sutter Hospital with multiple injuries; he was reportedly suffering from acute psychosis and a possible case of rhabdomyolysis—inflammation from muscle damage that can lead to kidney failure. He was charged with felony assault on an officer. His family says it was his first and only contact with police prior to medical responses in Chico, and the final investigation report likewise indicates no further criminal record.
Ramsey’s report does detail a voluntary visit to Butte County Behavioral Health’s Crisis Center in Chico on March 1, during which Desmond told a clinician he was “lost in thought; thinking about violence; worried about acting on it; feeling like I’m a threat to others, but also feel like others are a threat to me.” He also complained he’d been stuck in a hyper-vigilant state and suffered seizures since the Sacramento incident. After an evaluation determined he didn’t need hospitalization, he was sent away with a “safety plan” that recommended he follow up with an outpatient screening. He had no further reported contact with Behavioral Health before his death.
The elder Phillips disagrees with many details in Ramsey’s account of the night he called 911 and that police kicked in his door and shot Desmond, and points to inconsistencies in the official narrative to back his claims.
Accounts from the officers on the scene when Desmond was killed vary. Fliehr told investigators he saw a knife in each of his hands as he rose and charged officers after being hit by a Taser; Gagnebin, the other shooter, reported seeing him pick up a sharpened stick with a shiny metal point; and Officer Jarrod Cumber, who fired the Taser, reported Desmond was wielding a knife. The object found in Desmond’s right hand after his death was a wood-and-metal piece of door jamb broken off when officers kicked in the apartment’s front door.
During public forums in which the Phillips family countered the district attorney’s narrative of the incident, Ramsey repeatedly rejected David Phillips’ assertion he saw his son get shot, saying the father was locked in a room when shots were fired. But crime lab analysis of the 911 calls included in the final report revealed David had indeed opened the door before the shooting.
“The sight of the officer shooting an already falling Desmond would have naturally inflamed and upset the father,” Ramsey wrote in his report, explaining that shots fired after a threat has been stopped demonstrate a phenomenon sometimes called the OODA loop (short for observe, orient, decide and act). Ramsey claims this phenomenon explains the shots Phillips witnessed, as it takes “reasonable reaction time” to stop shooting in the face of a threat.
Phillips doesn’t buy it. “I saw Desmond’s body locked from the Taser,” he wrote in an account of the shooting released May 22 as part of the Justice for Desmond effort. “As my baby was falling, they were shooting him … he was no threat to them.”
Regardless of Ramsey’s findings, the loudest outcry over the shooting has centered around one indisputable fact: Phillips had summoned medical help during his son’s mental health crisis, and 21 minutes later, Desmond lay dead, with 10 of the 16 bullets fired at him having met their target.
Since the shooting, Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien has also been vocal about the confluence of mental health and law enforcement issues. In press conferences and community forums regarding the incident, he’s repeatedly said Butte County is experiencing a mental health emergency of epidemic proportions, and that systemic changes need to happen to better care for those afflicted.
At a Police Community Advisory Board meeting dedicated to mental health issues on May 17, O’Brien presented some numbers supporting that assertion. Between May 2012 and April 2013, CPD received 773 calls for service regarding mental health issues; in that same period in 2016-17, the department received 1,004 calls. O’Brien said he was particularly concerned about the number of suicides CPD sees—12 in 2012-13, 18 in 2016-17, and 29 in the time between those periods.
At the advisory board meeting and in separate interviews in recent weeks, O’Brien and Dorian Kittrell, director of the county’s Behavioral Health Department, outlined some possible causes for the increased prevalence of mental illness.
Kittrell pointed to Butte County’s 21.8 percent poverty rate, which is 1.5 times higher than the national average, explaining that childhood poverty can have lasting traumatic effects that manifest as mental disorders, and low-income families have fewer health care options. Both men cited the opioid epidemic and other drug issues as a contributing factor. Addiction and mental illness are often co-occurring disorders, and overdose or prolonged substance use can alter healthy brain chemistry or trigger a latent predisposition to mental illness, Kittrell said.
A few of the factors contributing to increased reports of mental illness are actually positive, according to Kittrell. They include a willingness to seek help—an indicator that stigma regarding mental health issues is on the decline. Additionally, the Affordable Care Act has increased access and helped fund better outreach and treatment. Kittrell said with certainty that repeal of the federal health care law will make the epidemic much worse.
Kittrell posited that part of the problem is life in modern times: “We’re constantly bombarded by all of the problems in the world, and there’s a lot of trauma and trouble and uncertainty,” he said. “I think that can have very negative effects on people who are susceptible to depression, anxiety and psychosis.”
The Behavioral Health website touts a Mobile Crisis Unit operating in Butte County, but Kittrell acknowledges that calling it a mobile crisis unit, in its current form, “is something of a misnomer.” Here it refers to professionals embedded in or dispatched to emergency rooms and other facilities to evaluate people in crisis, while in other communities it refers to a team dispatched into the field.
In the mobile crisis model, qualified mental health professionals act as first responders to emergency calls involving psychiatric crises, just as EMTs are sent to handle physical injuries. Depending on the individual program and nature of the call, they are often dispatched alongside or in lieu of law enforcement. Kittrell himself worked on a mobile crisis team in Berkeley
Locally, Kittrell said funding and staffing are the biggest challenges to starting new services, but he noted his department has established a Crisis Stabilization Unit that provides 24-hour service for those who have sought it in recent years, relieving strain on the county’s 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF, known colloquially as “The Puff”).
O’Brien and Kittrell said progress is being made toward forming a mobile response team pilot program, and that Behavioral Health has recently begun providing a half-time mental health clinician to work with the Chico Police Department’s Target Team—a neighborhood policing unit that deals with “quality of life issues” like homelessness—one day a week.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea also reported some progress on the mental health front during a recent interview, noting Behavioral Health provides a clinician embedded at the county jail. Inmates with mental illness now leave the facility with medication refills and a follow-up plan. Honea said that the BCSO is dedicated to improving how it perceives and reacts to mental health crises, and cited his department’s record of attending Tac Com (de-escalation) classes and a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) academy at Butte College.
CIT has become a hot-button topic following Desmond’s death. The 40-hour program was developed in 1988 following outcry from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) over a shooting death in Memphis. CIT was developed by NAMI and Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police Department, and has been implemented by an increasing number of law enforcement agencies around the world. During training, officers learn about disorders, medications and communication strategies; hear first-hand experiences; and visit local mental health facilities.
Until recently, the local CIT academy was overseen by BCSO Capt. Andy Duch. In the online journal Chico Sol the month after Desmond’s death, Duch criticized O’Brien for saying his department has proper CIT and for CPD’s infrequent involvement in the local program since it started in 2010.
“I recognize the importance of CIT, and I think we knew as a department that it was critically important to get people through that training as soon as possible,” O’Brien told the CN&R in response to Duch’s criticism. “The 40-hour course is extremely valuable, but it’s difficult to send more than a few people to something like that each year. You’re talking about a whole week, and I have to have people to run this police department and keep this community safe.”
O’Brien said he hired a qualified trainer to conduct a day-long, in-house training in December 2015, and that she will return for two more sessions later this year.
Duch repeated his criticism in an interview with the CN&R just days before his May 21 retirement, which he acknowledged was prompted partly by the CIT issue, though he didn’t remark specifically about the Phillips case. He offered anecdotal evidence of the CPD’s attitudes toward mental health training and response, including an instance when former Chief Kirk Trostle floated an idea in a public forum that police should stop responding to mental health calls altogether as it wasn’t a law enforcement concern.
“How do you get to the point where you’re so short-sighted about what your job is that you don’t even realize that public safety and public service are above law enforcement,” Duch said. “We go because everybody deserves to be safe, even the guy who’s trying to kill himself.”
Duch spoke to larger issues he said cause problems with all police interactions and are exacerbated when mental illness is involved—officer tactics, training and what he called “cop culture.”
“We’re trained according to an officer-survivor, officer-safety model,” he said. “The potential pitfall with that system is it’s based on fear instead of competence. You tend to predict negative outcomes when you approach things like that. It’s this whole mysterious way we think, this hyper-vigilant mindset.”
Duch said police training focuses on officer control rather than letting people in crisis work things out through their own coping mechanisms.
“Maybe the reason some guy isn’t attacking me is because he’s smoking and pacing, so I should just let him,” he said. “If there’s no violence or anger, why not keep it that way and just talk to the person like a normal human being and not a criminal?”
Duch said he’d ask officers in his classes to consider the tens of thousands of contacts made during their careers and consider how many people actually tried to kill them. Veteran officers might name one to three instances, at most. He would also share numbers proving that more officers die by suicide in a single year than are shot by criminals or killed in car accidents—the Officer Down Memorial Page notes 108 suicides in 2016, compared to 97 officers killed by gunfire or vehicles in the same period.
“You’re so worried about being murdered by somebody else when the bottom line is you’re far more likely to murder yourself,” Duch said. “[But that] doesn’t fit the cop narrative of, ‘Everyone’s out to get us.’
“Nobody is trying to murder you, and if someone tries to kick your ass, it’s probably because the last cop [he encountered] was such a dick, got away with it, and guess what you inherited? The anger he deserved. If police want to be safe, they need to quit paying forward pissed-off people.”
A press conference was held by the Phillips family and organizations involved in the Justice for Desmond effort last week (May 23) at Bethel AME Church. There, David Phillips gave his account of his son’s death and announced the family was working with Bay Area-based civil rights attorney John Burris to call for an independent investigation and pursue other legal avenues.
(In an earlier interview, Ramsey said such legal challenges are not uncommon, but that his investigations have thus far withstood scrutiny; he noted cases brought by the families of Breanne Sharpe and Cory Bush were recently dismissed by federal courts).
Representatives from other organizations—Standing Up for Racial Justice, the Chico Peace and Justice Center and more—also spoke at the church to voice their support for the Phillips family and to demand more vigorous training for police to deal with mentally ill citizens.
In the meantime, the specter of Desmond’s tragic death hangs heavy over the Phillips family’s Chico home.
“They killed my baby, and I see it every time I close my eyes,” David said. “I’ve got to live with that every day until my son gets justice. I won’t stop trying if it takes the rest of my life.”