Phoenix Police Department Changing How It Handles the Mentally Ill After Fatal Shooting

About a month after a Phoenix police officer fatally shot a mentally ill woman, city leaders have announced a plan to change how the police department deals with the mentally ill.

Michelle Cusseaux, 50, was fatally shot by Phoenix cop Percy Dupra on August 14, after police say she threatened officers with a hammer when they went to serve a court order to deliver Cusseaux to a mental-health facility.

"August 14, 2014, was a tragic day not only for the Cusseaux family, but for our department as well," Police Chief Daniel Garcia said at a press conference yesterday, where Cusseaux's mother was in the audience.

See also: -Body of Mentally Ill Woman Killed by Phoenix Police Brought to City Hall

The main change going forward is the creation of a mental health advisory board that reports directly to the police department.

"This is not a task force, this is not a temporary board," Mayor Greg Stanton said. "This is a board that's going to be made up the top mental-health professionals in our community, providing constant guidance to the police department."

City officials named the eight-member board, many of whom are the heads of local mental-health service providers, like Community Bridges and the Crisis Response Network, among others.

Councilman Michael Nowakowski said he was placed on a police advisory board 20 years ago, and it's still active.

"I know that these advisory boards work," he said. "These advisory boards have direct communication to the chief and top administrators of the Phoenix Police Department. This is where change happens."

Garcia said that since August 14, all patrol officers have undergone a mandatory two-hour training session on emergency mental-health pickup orders, and a police commander is currently in charge of developing a curriculum of additional training on similar issues for officers, like the use of force in mental-health situations. Other changes would include adding more body cameras and similar technology, which he referred to as the "future of law enforcement." He's also mandated that a supervisor respond to the scene of any mental-health situation police are involved in.

In addition to training and technology, Garcia and others said there would be an effort to decrease police presence in mental-health situations, only bringing in officers if the person's a danger to themselves or others.

"Our goal is to use police as a last resort," said Justin Chase, the CEO of the Crisis Response Network. "Our first place of action should be dedicated to the mental-health and behavioral-health experts in our community, and coordinating with them."

Garcia wouldn't address how the changes related to the shooting of Cusseaux, citing the ongoing police investigation into the shooting, and the internal-affairs investigation of the officer. However, he certainly sounded ambitious about the changes.

"We're not bringing the finished product here today," Garcia said. "I want the Phoenix Police Department and the City of Phoenix to become the model of policing in mental-health issues for law enforcement across the country, so our work will never be done."

Garcia and the PPD were on the hot seat after the killing of Cusseaux, as family members and protesters showed up to City Hall with Cusseaux's body in a casket, demanding answers, and demanding an external investigation.

Garcia quickly responded by seeking an external investigation from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, which is ongoing.

In the wake of the Cusseaux shooting, and other controversial shootings that have brought protests or criticism, Garcia was asked how he expects to keep the trust of the community.

"The fact is that there are a number of issues across the country that [are] bringing out strong emotions against police -- and some for police," he said. "The fact is that we should never be in the business of telling people how to feel."

Got a tip? Send it to: Matthew Hendley.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley