The Phoenix Police Department's Use of Force Board has ruled that the officer who fatally shot Michelle Cusseaux outside of her apartment last summer, Sergeant Percy Dupra, was in violation of department policy.
The finding of the board of three citizens and three officers runs contrary to prior investigations into the incident and today was celebrated as a civil rights victory by those protesting the mentally ill woman's death.
“We've made history here in Phoenix,” said Fran Garrett, Cusseaux's mother. For more than a year, Garrett and others have been fighting to get “justice for Michelle,” and as she stood with friends and family outside City Hall to discuss the police board's action, she called its decision an important step forward in the fight for racial justice and mental-health parity.
Cusseaux was killed in August 2014 after a police officers were sent to her apartment as part of a court-ordered mental-health pick up. According to police, she wouldn't open her door so they had to force their way inside. Dupra has said he saw her holding a hammer above her head in a way he deemed threatening and that he shot her in self defense.
Interestingly, she was shot to death days after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and as such, her story has remained a local rallying cry for police reform, racial justice, and an overhaul in police training.
In the days following her slaying, hundreds in Phoenix and around the country protested and demanded an independent investigation. Much to their dismay, earlier this year, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office announced that it would not press charges against Dupra.
Among those joining Garrett today were Elizabeth Singleton, a Phoenix advocate for mental health and the homeless, and Reverend Jarrett Maupin, a local civil rights leader. Maupin called the review board's decision “a watershed moment for civil rights,” and Singleton said Cusseaux's death helped convince the PPD that it needed a special mental-health squad.
She also spoke of the need for more training and said it was imperative that the police be equipped with body cameras: “It will help keep the community safe and it will help keep the officers safe.”
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While Dupra's case now is in the hands of the PPD Disciplinary Review Board — which could suspend, demote, or fire him — Garrett explained that justice for her daughter goes deeper than his punishment. It's about “recognizing that people with disabilities matter...and recognizing that mental illness is a disability,” she says.
That much more must be done before such awareness is commonplace inside police forces wasn't lost on her and the others standing with her.
“Obviously this is a massive issue across the country,” Sam Stone of the American Justice Project said. “People want real criminal-justice reform [and want to see] officers that aren't justified in using force brought to justice.”
“We want substantive policy reform,” Maupin said, “and we also don't want to celebrate prematurely. [Phoenix] has come a long way, but we're not there yet.”