By Faith in St. Joseph County Leaders David Springer and Rebekah Go
No matter what our race, where we live, or how we pray, when our family members struggle with their mental health, we want them to get help, not handcuffs − or even worse − bullets. But when Dante Kittrell was in trouble, he was shot and killed by South Bend police.Dante is known to have struggled with mental health. Nearly a dozen officers with guns drawn confronted him for almost an hour as he paced an empty field. No mental health clinicians were called to the scene. And then, a SWAT team in an armored vehicle arrived and drove toward Dante. Within seconds multiple shots were fired andDante slumped to the ground.
Another mother has been left broken-hearted. Her loss and pain represents the collective trauma faced by Black and brown communities across America. She has only one question: “Why?” A question being asked by Faith in Indiana as well:● Why was a man in an empty field seen as a threat?● Why did numerous police, armed with long guns, encircle this man in crisis, agitating and provoking him?● Why didn’t the police call on mental health specialists? Couldn’t these professionals have at least advised and partnered with the police?● Why were his mother, a friend and a pastor prevented from engaging Dante when perhaps a friendly face or a familiar voice was what he needed to see?● Why didn’t the police guard the perimeter and allow Dante more time?● Why did police send a SWAT team, driving across the field at Dante, instead of de-escalating the situation?● Why, time after time, when white men are in crisis and even shoot and kill people, can law enforcement find a way to bring them in alive?● Why did Dante Kittrell have to die?
These questions are linked to another set of questions:● What value do we ascribe to persons who suffer from mental illness?● Do we see these people as “less than” human?● What makes people often see a Black man as dangerous?● Does he forfeit the right to live if he has a gun?● How would you respond if Dante had been your son?
Faith in Indiana believes that we must value the lives of all peoples regardless of their race, their political persuasion or their mental or physical health. If we value all humans equally we will develop systems that can and will prevent the loss of human life. Faith in Indiana strongly endorses the Crisis Now approach:● A person to CALL − a dedicated phone number for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis and/or those concerned about members who are acting unwell (988 has just been introduced nationally);● A team to COME − a mobile crisis response team of mental health professionals and peer support staff, separate from law enforcement, that can physically go to the individual in crisis and provide aid;● A place to GO − a behavioral crisis center open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year that is not jail and not the ER, where trained clinicians can help those in need.We have been working for more than two years to develop this kind of system in our community. We are pleased to see some initial funds appropriated by both county and city officials. A pilot mobile crisis unit has been operated by Oaklawn for several months. Beacon is working with Oaklawn and the Health Department to open a crisis response center in the spring.But this is just a start.
We must fundamentally reimagine public safety. We are calling on our mayor to invest a minimum of 10% of the police budget in clinician-led non-law enforcement mobile crisis response teams to deal with situations that involve mental health and substance use. We need strong leadership so that a robust crisis response system is fully funded and staffed, and is embraced and used by our police and community as a central element of our public safety system.The killing of Dante Kittrell reminds us of the urgency of this undertaking and demands answers from those responsible for seeing that all members of our community receive the help and care they need.
David Springer, community engagement pastor at South Bend Berean Seventh Day Adventist Church, and Rebekah Go, Jail Diversion Working Group, are leaders in the St. Joseph County Chapter of Faith in Indiana.