SOUTH BEND ― Top city officials stood by the police and fire chiefs Monday to rebuke a resolution to be brought before the South Bend Common Council on Monday night that calls for the creation and “immediate implementation” of a mental health crisis intervention team within the fire department.
The resolution, authored by city councilors Lori Hamann and Henry Davis Jr., claims fire departments are better equipped to de-escalate mental health crises because members don’t carry guns or focus on punitive action. The councilors name five cities in which, they say, crisis intervention teams exist within the fire department.
South Bend Mayor James Mueller said the resolution shows how its authors are “ignorant about how our fire department operates.”
“Something that everyone up here can agree on is that we need to improve how we respond to mental health crises. In fact, we’re already working on these things …,” Mueller said. “This resolution is unfortunately causing more questions than answering anything going forward.”
The debate comes in response to the killing of 51-year-old Dante Kittrell, who was reportedly threatening suicide and holding a gun, by South Bend Police Department officers on July 29. A SWAT truck was called to the scene after nearly 45 minutes of attempted negotiation. Kittrell was shot seconds after it arrived.
The mayor, joined by Common Council Vice President Sheila Neizgodski, Fire Chief Carl Buchanon and Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski, said the city is committed to reform in other areas.
A behavioral crisis center is being built at Epworth Hospital in downtown South Bend in collaboration with Beacon Health System, with the goal of appropriately treating people instead of holding them in prison. The South Bend Police Department is in talks with Oaklawn Psychiatric Center about how to include Oaklawn’s Mobile Crisis Team in response to crisis calls.
The South Bend Fire Department employs no qualified mental health clinicians, Buchanon said. Community paramedics have expertise in emergency medical services, necessary in cases of physical trauma.
Buchanon told The Tribune he is open to the idea of training them to aid Oaklawn’s Mobile Crisis Team. But he said he was disgruntled Monday that his department was being invoked by common councilors who never discussed the matter with him.
Firefighters and paramedics “are not mental health evaluators or clinicians that can provide that service,” Buchanon said Monday.
“It’s going to take all of us to be able to move this Oaklawn outline into a 24-hour-a-day service to our community,” he added, noting that police, the fire department, the dispatch center and Oaklawn would need to work together to properly direct calls. “There is no light switch that we can turn on that’s going to do it. It’s going to take effort, and it’s going to take time.”
Ruszkowski, speaking publicly for the first time since Dante Kittrell was killed by SBPD officers, said of the 668 calls related to some type of mental health crisis received this year as of Aug. 3, only this one ended adversely. The others were resolved using de-escalation measures.
The police chief said conversations about South Bend’s response to crises have been ongoing for more than two years. “It’s not moving as fast as I feel it should be,” Ruszkowski said, “but it is moving.”
A police spokeswoman said Monday that the officers involved in the shooting are on administrative leave pending the investigation of their behavior by St. Joseph County officials. The department pledged to release in-car camera and body-cam video footage to the public if the county prosecutor does not.
SBPD won’t comment on the officers’ tactical response, during or after the investigation, Ruszkowski said.
“When a firearm or other weapon is introduced, not just for that person but capable of harming others,” Ruszkowski said, “that ups the ante and ups what we have to do in a tactical and a de-escalation type response.”