Resolution sparks debate over mental health crisis response in South Bend

By Gemma DiCarlo | WVPE 88.1 Elkhart/South Bend

A proposed common council resolution put South Bend city leaders at odds Monday about who should be responsible for responding to mental health crises in the city.

The argument was prompted by the death of Dante Kittrell, who was armed and in the midst of a mental health crisis when South Bend police shot and killed him late last month.

At a vigil last week, family, faith leaders and community members questioned why a third party — such as a mental health crisis response team — was not called to intervene.

In response, South Bend Common Council members Lori Hamann and Henry Davis Jr. authored a resolution that calls on the city to create a crisis response team within the fire department. Both said they felt called to do so as parents of adult children with autism.

But at a press conference Monday afternoon, Mayor James Mueller said the resolution raised more questions than solutions.

“It’s actually made the ongoing efforts that are already underway more complicated than they were before,” he said.

Mueller said the city is already working to support a crisis team operated by Oaklawn Psychiatric Services. That team began responding to calls this spring, and is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

However, some community advocates say Kittrell’s death is evidence that the efforts at Oaklawn aren’t moving quickly enough.

“They are — because of funding — going very slowly and are going to be very limited. We need to have the funding from the city to make this a reality,” Paul Mishler, a representative of the Michiana Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, told a council committee Monday.

St. Joseph County approved funding for a mental health crisis response center late last year, but advocates have been pushing for a more stable funding stream.

The resolution had the support of several activist groups, including the local chapters of Black Lives Matter, Faith in Indiana and the NAACP.

By nature, the resolution wouldn’t have bound the council to any action — but the public health and safety committee still voted to table it indefinitely late Monday afternoon.

Council Vice President Sheila Niezgodski said the resolution was technically filed too late to be included on the council’s agenda, and that committee members didn’t have adequate time to review it.

“That is not the way that you should be conducting business on such an important topic like this,” Niezgodski said Monday afternoon. “It is unfair to ask your fellow council members to vote on something that you do not have full knowledge of, or that the process has not been followed properly.”

However, Hamann told the committee she had emailed the resolution out the previous Saturday so members would be able to review it by Monday.

Several community members who spoke before the committee said procedural concerns were beside the point. Instead, they expressed frustration with the seeming lack of clarity around the city’s response to mental health crises.

“Nobody can tell us the concrete steps that the administration has taken to implement a mobile crisis unit,” Jordan Giger, co-founder of BLM-South Bend, said. “There are promises that have gone unmet. And we need to ensure that what happened to Dante never happens again.”

The St. Joseph County and Mishawaka Police Departments are still investigating Kittrell’s death. A statement from the SBPD says the department has turned over all evidence, including body and car cam footage from officers who responded to the incident.

The statement says that video won’t be made available to the public until the investigation concludes.

This story has been updated. 

Contact Gemma at gdicarlo@wvpe.org or follow her on Twitter at @gemma_dicarlo.

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