Strange Fruit on Good Friday

Artwork by Gabriela Winton, age 9 years-old
Artwork by Santiago Winton, age 12 years-old

On March 17th, 2017, Desmond Phillips, a 25 year-old Black man, was shot and killed by the Chico Police Department during a welfare check (5150). His death highlights once again implicit racial bias within policing as well as law enforcement’s inability to respond with care in a mental health crisis. Desmond attended the same church as my family, Bethel AME. In fact it was at church where I first heard of the shooting. Since that time, Desmond’s family, as well as fellow church members and community activists, have been calling for an outside investigation, one that would examine the shooting with a new set of eyes and commitments. This is in light of the fact that District Attorney Mike Ramsey officially announced that the officers were “legally justified” in their actions.

Two of the officers who fired shots that killed Desmond were also graduates of Butte College’s police academy. After discussing what happened to Desmond with Mike Maloney (Police Academy Director at that time), I learned that academy students receive only 15 hours of training related to working with “people with disabilities.” While the college offers a Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) course, new recruits within the Academy are not required to take it. Even more concerning is that the Chico PD did not respond with any team of behavioral health professionals to address Desmond’s mental health crisis.

Desmond was reportedly fearful of police and had been experiencing PTSD from a previous encounter with law enforcement in Sacramento. Yet the officers made their life-and-death decision within a matter of seconds. After tasing him, they fired their weapons 16 times, hitting Desmond in the face, neck, and chest. Would this level of force have happened if Desmond were White? Had police collaborated with behavioral health to do the welfare check, would Desmond have responded with less fear to their presence at the scene? These questions have not been part of the investigation up to this point, and likely won’t ever be considered as long as the same authorities who lynched Desmond have the power to decide what makes his death legal and justified.