St. Joe Co. changing mental health crisis response amid criticism over Dante Kittrell killing (2023)

Jordan SmithSouth Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND ― Some residents who attended a Tuesday night meeting at which St. Joseph County and city officials announced changes to how they respond to mental health crises and answered questions surrounding the police killing of Dante Kittrell said they were left with more questions ― and even more frustrated. Kittrell's mother walked out before the meeting had ended.

"All I'm hearing right now is a lot of ifs, ands and buts," said Brian Keith, who was among about 40 people who attended the meeting at Brown Intermediate Center.

"We all get how government works," he added ― slowly, he meant. "But at least have some sort of strategy. Because it's one thing to say you want to win the World Series. It's another thing to have a strategy to get there."

But officials said there will be significant changes, and they're developing new goals about how to deal with mental health crises. Kittrell suffered from mental illness when police shot him.

Nancy Lockhart, deputy director of operations at the St. Joseph County 911 Dispatch Center, said her team will change how it handles mental health crisis calls starting Oct. 3.

In scenarios where a person is "not a harm to themselves or others in the community, they're just in crisis and they don't know where to turn," the dispatch center will forward them to the mobile crisis response team run by Oaklawn mental health center, she said.

But because Oaklawn's team operates Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the dispatch center will forward calls only during those hours. The majority of mental health calls come outside of those hours, Lockhart said.

"After hours, which is when we get the majority of those types of calls, we'll be forwarding those citizens to 988," Lockhart said in reference to the national suicide and crisis lifeline.

The decision comes in response to confusion that arose among activists over why, if a crisis response team with trained professionals exists, police did not summon it to the field outside of Coquillard Elementary School. Kittrell stood there July 29 in the throes of an apparent mental health emergency, holding what officers thought was a handgun but turned out to be an airsoft gun.

The mayor and police chief have maintained that Kittrell was potentially dangerous to himself and others, and officers will nearly always respond in such circumstances.

A SWAT truck was called to the field to serve as a barrier between Kittrell and a ring of officers who had been negotiating with him for 45 minutes. He was shot and killed within seconds of its arrival.

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Calling the new call-forwarding policy a "stopgap measure," Lockhart said the eventual goal is to have a mental health counselor working in the dispatch center so after-hours calls can be retained.

"What we do know is there's some people that don't need a police response or a firetruck or an ambulance," she said. "What they need is kind, compassionate care from somebody that can give them that. 911 dispatchers aren't trained for that level of care."

Moreover, Oaklawn soon plans to address limitations with its crisis response team, said John Horsley, vice president of adult and addiction services.

By the end of this month, Oaklawn's small team ― made up of a coordinator, two professional therapists with master's degrees and four "peer support" counselors who are people in recovery from mental health or substance abuse disorders ― plans to extend its operating hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays.

By March 2023, the team aims to run a mobile response unit 24/7. Oaklawn's next objectives are to work with the dispatch center to place a trained therapist inside and to hire more peer support counselors to negotiate with residents.

For now, Oaklawn fields about 60-80 calls a week, Horsley said. He said 80% of mental health crises can be handled effectively with only a phone call, according to a national standard. The mobile team is deployed 5-15 times a week, occasionally on its own and other times alongside a local police agency or the fire department.

A concern raised by many residents who attended was that people of color should respond to South Bend's predominantly Black or Hispanic neighborhoods. Horsley said peer supporters are seriously needed for this reason.

"They have been in these situations, they've lived through them and they can empathize and know what's best," Horsley said. "We find that our peer supports really do a great job of engaging people and helping people through the process."

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Attendees, who gathered in groups of 7-10 people at a half-dozen tables on Brown Intermediate Center's gym floor, were told to discuss their concerns and then stand to present a list to the mayor's office.

Though the discussions ran long and pushed the event nearly an hour past its intended timeline, many worried the format was meant to appease their concerns without implementing them in countywide crisis response efforts. Two of the presenters for tables were not residents but top employees of South Bend Mayor James Mueller ― Chief of Staff Kacey Gergely and Deputy Chief of Staff Jordan Gathers.

Charlotte Pfeiffer, an Indiana University South Bend professor, said on behalf of her table that even in potentially dangerous mental health crises, police officers should always be accompanied by a mental health professional. Others mentioned the need for constant follow-up with people who experienced a crisis and were served by county services.

Darryl Heller, who leads the Civil Rights Heritage Center and is influential among the South Bend Common Council in its creation of a Community Police Review Office, said his table agreed that police shouldn't have the final say by default in a crisis, "particularly if someone else on the scene has greater expertise."

Mueller offered a tentative timeframe of one to three months for following up on issues raised by residents.

"There will be progress here ... within the next few weeks and months, and some pieces will take longer than we want," Mueller said. "Obviously we'll take what we gain from tonight and see, was that strategy that we've been working on for some time, does that fit where all of you, our community, is? And if not, we'll have to figure out how to make adjustments where possible."

"We value your time, we value your voices, and we don't want to waste it," he added.

The mayor faced their critiques in tense conversations at the night's end, encapsulated by an interaction with one woman for whom the night was meant to be especially helpful.

Marcia Kittrell had been mostly silent all evening before she stood up to address Mueller.

"I'm his mom," the older woman said of Dante Kittrell, the 51-year-old man killed by South Bend police officers on July 29 ― 39 days from when she spoke Tuesday evening ― during a mental health emergency.

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Speaking quietly at first, she told the mayor how she had two code words with Dante that were to be spoken during a crisis. But police wouldn't let her speak with him that day, she said. Instead, according to Marcia, officers addressed him through a handheld bull horn.

"Why couldn't I have used a bull horn?" she asked, leaning forward toward Mueller and raising her voice. "Why?"

The room of more than 50 people fell silent. Ten seconds passed. Pale yellow lights buzzed in the gymnasium of Brown Intermediate Center. The meeting had run nearly two hours at that point.

The mayor began his response, urging people to watch the whole video of the encounter that police captured.

In it, he noted, officers asked Dante if there was a family member he could speak to. Dante replied with a slew of expletives that seemed to express his anger about his family's perception of him. Officers decided that tactic escalated the encounter, not the opposite.

But Mueller hadn't finished his response when Marcia shuffled papers, stood, shook her head, and walked out the door into the night without another word.

Warning: The following video contains the use of profanity and an encounter in which a mentally ill man is shot and killed. Viewer discretion is advised.

St. Joe Co. changing mental health crisis response amid criticism over Dante Kittrell killing (1)

St. Joe Co. changing mental health crisis response amid criticism over Dante Kittrell killing (2)

Dante Kittrell shooting: Police, body cam footage

Police and body cam footage contain the use of profanity and an encounter in which a mentally ill man is shot and killed. Viewer discretion advised.

South Bend Tribune

Contact South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at 574-235-6480 or Follow him on Twitter:@jordantsmith09

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