At the time of Michelle Cusseaux’s death, she was 50, lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. On August 14, 2014, Cusseaux grew agitated when a cab didn’t show up to take her to the hospital; just a week earlier, she’d filed a grievance on previous transportation failures. Cusseaux called a Southwest Network health facility, and Office Manager Jamey Helms found her comments to be threatening. Due to House Bill 2105, passed in April of that year, neither Helms nor anyone else affiliated with Southwest Network—which claims to be “one of the largest community behavioral health providers in the U.S.”—have to check in on patients personally. Instead, Helms called the police to make what is formally known as a mental health petition. (Police are frequently first-responders in calls like this, which in ideal situations end in a psychiatric care facility; the actual trip itself is referred to as a mental-health pickup.)
Frances Garrett, Cusseaux’s mother who also lives in Phoenix, was in California at the time of Cusseaux’s pickup. She was attending the parole hearing of the man who had killed her son, Edward, in 1984. Garrett had talked to Cusseaux earlier that day, and later described her daughter’s emotional state as “okay” and “calm.” Garrett got a phone call from Southwest Behavioral Network Services (outpatient and care facilities supported financially by Southwest Network), asking if Cusseaux owned a gun. Garrett said she didn’t, nor had she ever.
It was mid-afternoon when police—who were court ordered to transport Cusseaux to an inpatient mental-health facility—reached Graybriar Condominiums. When the four officers from the Phoenix Police Department (PPD) arrived, Cusseaux opened the door and, perhaps confused by their presence, exchanged words with the officers and slammed the door shut. Upset, police decided to remove the security door, whereupon they saw Cusseaux holding a hammer. About an arm’s length away, police say, she charged at them, and at approximately 3:00 p.m., Sgt. Percy Dupra, a 19-year veteran of the force, fired a single shot that hit Cusseaux in her chest. She was rushed to a hospital, where she later died.
If ever there was a time when the murder of a black woman by a white police officer in America would make the news, it was August 2014. With the death of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, digital activism surrounding police abuse had reached a zenith.The unjust deaths of other African Americans, like Ezell Ford and Vonderrit Myers, Jr, spurred national audiences to take action.
Michelle Cusseaux’s death, however, did not.
Two days after Cusseaux was gunned down, Cloves Campbell, Jr, a representative in Arizona’s state legislature, bemoaned protestors at a rally for Cusseaux. “We should have a thousand people out here right now,” he said. “With all the social media we have, all the ways we know how to communicate, [the police] have fifty or sixty out here right now, they have more than we do.” A week later, on August 22, activists marched a casket containing her body through downtown Phoenix and past City Hall.
“The original story we heard [about Cusseaux] was not extremely shocking to me,” Mary Lou Brnick, founder of the Arizona mental health advocacy group David’s Hope, told me. Brnick, along with 2.5 million other parents in America (estimates show that at least 40 percent of all cases go undiagnosed), is the mother of someone who battles schizophrenia. She started David’s Hope after experiences with her son gave way to the realization of “how much easier it was for a person with mental illness in Arizona to end up in prison rather than treatment.”
Police activity is a regular part of life in Arizona, which ranks seventh in the nation in incarceration rates. In 2013, the year for which the latest statistics have been released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics division, Arizona had 41,104 federally incarcerated inmates. For reference, just look to the state closest to Arizona in terms of population, Massachusetts, and how in 2013 it held one-fourth as many inmates (10,950). Brinck said her opinion about Cusseaux’s case changed once details concerning how the police entered her home were made public.
“Because they were really putting themselves next to her, not being prepared for her, they knew she was really sick,” Brinck said. “What would have been the harm of waiting a little bit, calling a crisis person to come out? I don’t believe any of those officers were trained to deal with people with mental disabilities. Pull a door off with a crowbar and shoot someone—it makes no sense to me.”
There are two phone numbers that those in Maricopa County, home to more than half of Arizona’s population, can dial in a mental health crisis: 911 and 602-222-9444, an emergency number run by Crisis Response Network, Inc (CRN). Founded in 2007, CRN has grown over the years, and, according to a 2013 annual report, has become “the most extensive crisis response network in the nation.” Contracted mental health hotlines are not uncommon. Many have roots in the Community Mental Health Act of 1964, legislation that quickened what is known as deinstitutionalization, or the movement from mental health treatment from singular institutions to community-based care. And yet, in Maricopa County, where Cusseaux was shot, mental health incidents are typically handled by police—often with brute force.
“What’s happening is that if you call the crisis, they’re taking about two minutes to listen to you, and then they’re saying you need police,” Brinck said. “It never really matters if you tell them you need police or not, police are very frequently being sent.” CRN did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s an issue that, after Cusseaux’s death and the march with her casket through downtown Phoenix, has become more public. On October 22, then-Police Chief Daniel Garcia announced plans for the Phoenix Police Department to develop a mental health advisory board. “I know that these advisory boards work,” he said. “This is where change happens.”
While various reports highlighted how top mental health officials from around the area would be added to the board, only one was mentioned by name: Justin Chase, chief executive officer of CRN. The press conference was interrupted by Garrett, who said she had not been informed of the advisory board’s existence. “[Phoenix] need[s] a voice from the community such as myself,” Garrett later said. “I speak for a lot of community members. We have lost loved ones. We know what the root of the problems are, and only we can speak on that because we have experienced it. Until you have walked in our shoes, I don’t see how they can understand and move forth and have empathy for us.”
With Garrett that day was Liz Singleton, chief executive officer of Singleton Housing, which provides low-cost housing and services to nearly 300 people with mental health issues. Asked about attending the press conference with Garrett, she laughed: “Yeah, we weren’t invited. We almost didn’t get in.” (Garrett did not return multiple requests for an interview.)
Like Garrett, Singleton is critical of police outreach efforts. “There’s no one on the mental health advisory board but CEOs,” she said. “So the CEO of some insurance company has some outreach. But there’s no peer support, there’s no family.”
The failures and stumbling blocks placed in front of the mentally ill in Phoenix are multi-tiered, according to Singleton. Some of the problems are simple: “We need a three-digit number!” she told me, echoing a similar proposal made in Utah earlier this year. She is highly critical of HB 2105, and believes that “it’s easier to petition someone than to go and try to de-escalate the situation. Everyone in this [industry] has been affected by HB 2105”. Others problems are technological: Singleton said it would be beneficial if mental health service providers and case managers were given the ability to scan an area, Uber-style, for police officers in the area of someone in need of a medical pickup who have undergone Crisis Intervention Training (CIT).
“We want our mental health responders as first responders in a crisis situation, and for police to be there in situations [where the person is a danger to his or herself] and others, meaning the situation becomes dangerous for the professionals to maintain,” Singleton said. “But currently, we don’t have that system, police are the first responders in a mental health crisis. They’re first responders for a lot of issues in our mental health community. We don’t want that.”
Michelle Cusseaux was born in 1963. She had a childhood nickname, Lulu, that stemmed from a bow her mother made her wear; it made her look like the cartoon character Little Lulu. A lover of music, Cusseaux’s favorite artists were the Isley Brothers and James Brown.
It was around 2007 when she was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression (Garrett claims Cusseaux’s mental break began years prior when her brother was killed in a drive-by shooting). But Cusseaux never let her illness get in the way of life. She found work where she could, taking jobs here and there, which included driving a cab to working as a janitor.
According to the Arizona Republic, Cusseaux, who was 5’5” and 130 pounds, had “six felony convictions, a long history of drug abuse and had reportedly threatened mental-health workers” on previous occasions.
But those who knew Cusseaux best, remember her differently. Affectionately known “Cuddie” and “Chelly Baby,” Cusseaux was a common jokester around friends and often “the life of the party.” Just before her death, she was planning a trip to Jamaica to celebrate her friend’s 40th birthday.
“That brightness always showed in her eyes,” Malik Waheed, Cusseaux’s uncle, said during her funeral last August. “I saw it when she was angry, when she was sick, when she was sad. There was always a sparkle in Michelle’s eye that just smiled. [You] just know that God was looking from behind those eyes. She was a beautiful person.”
“She was a very caring person,” Garrett said. “Sure enough that she had mental health issues, she also went back to school and became a peer, to help others such as herself.”
House Bill 2105 is the child of Arizona State Representative John Kavanagh. Born and raised in Queens, New York, Kavanagh was a police officer with the Port Authority for 20 years. Before that, he worked his way through college driving a New York City ambulance. Since his move west to Arizona 12 years ago, and his subsequent election to the Arizona state legislature, Kavanagh has found his way onto national cameras again and again.
In the last few months alone, he’s come under fire for a bill aimed at targeting trans bathroom rights and seeking jail time for “aggressive begging,” as well as a bill shielding the names of police officers involved in shootings, such as Cusseaux’s shooter, Sgt. Percy Dupra.
However, HB 2105 was met with minimal resistance: It passed with 60 votes to zero in the Arizona House, and 20 votes to 3 in the Senate. Kavanagh later said that the only concerns lawmakers expressed were “on the basis that someone with a grudge could presumably have the power to put a rational individual into psychiatric custody.”
The bill was directly inspired by Kavanagh’s time on the force in the 1970s, when he became aware of a theory about policing the mentally ill termed “uniform reaction.” Kavanagh tells Gawker that “the problem with making police officers actually witness the threatening behavior is that if a person is mentally ill and has spent time in a mental hospital, they often become conditioned to calm down when they see a uniform, and so because the mental health workers wear uniforms at a mental institution, then, if they’re acting up, they get punished by the person with the uniform.”
Whatever Kavanagah’s personal experiences may be, “uniform reaction” has no grounding in scientific theory. Gawker contacted two experts on police interaction, neither of whom were familiar of the concept. “If there is scientific backing to the ‘uniform response’ theory, I’m not personally aware of it,” said Dr. Amanda Geller, clinical associate professor in New York University’s Department of Sociology.
Dr. Paul Applebaum, the Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine, and Law at Columbia University, was also not familiar with the term. “I have never heard of a ‘uniform reaction,’ and I know of no research on the phenomenon.” Applebaum, having read Kavanagh’s response, added, “It’s not true that mental health workers wear uniforms—at least not in any hospital I’ve ever been in. Nor do mental health workers ‘punish’ patients for ‘acting up.’”
“That being said,” Dr. Applebaum continued, “the new law may nonetheless be reasonable.” He pointed toward other states like New York and Massachusetts where a “police officer isn’t required to witness a particular behavior, but can take the totality of the available information into account.”
The law may be reasonable in theory, but is it reasonable in Arizona? Any law requiring additional time spent with individuals who are severely mentally ill, no matter the job, should take into account a person’s experience and training for the situation.
Massachusetts, the state with a fourth of Arizona’s federal inmate population, has a jail diversion program that aims to reduce the amount of time those with mental illnesses spend locked up; local departments within the state have applied for grants to mirror that progress. New York City is in the process of revamping its mental health training, as is the state. In Arizona, the Police Officer Standards and Training Board offers one eight-hour seminar on mental health first aid, as well as an optional course called Understanding Mental Illness and Developmental Disabilities, and another course in which a person can learn how to teach the UMIDD seminar. Just this week, it was announced that Nneka Jones Tapia, a clinical psychologist, will head Chicago’s Cook County Jail, which is the second largest in the nation.
Former Phoenix Police Chief Garcia, who was fired shortly after announcing the Mental Health Task Force, also said that some level of “mental-health awareness training” would be required for 1,300 officers, although he did not give any specifics. Though there are eight police departments in Maricopa County that use the 40-hour CIT curriculum, Phoenix is not one of them.
The department’s big push for a course correction after Cusseaux’s death is a not-yet-realized six-person team to deal with the specific issue of mental health pickups, which it is calling a Crisis Intervention Squad (CIS). As noted in a PPD Facebook post, CIS “is supported by the Police Chief’s Mental Health Executive Advisory Board.”
But despite a promised start date of March 2015, CIS hasn’t panned out. “Unfortunately, resources are a bit depleted right now so it is taking longer than expected,” Sgt. Jonathan Howard told me. “But we continue to make progress and hope to be assembled within the next month.” Although the PPD has not had a graduating class of officers in seven years, earlier this month City Manager Ed Zuercher promised $2.2 million for general police training, a portion of which would include mental health training, as well 110 new officers.
Phoenix Police Department Commander Matt Giordano responded in a follow-up email saying, when CIS officially starts, the department is “hopeful” and that “recruitment will close on May 15.” On May 15, Giordano told Gawker that the department is “on schedule to have the six officers identified and assigned to the Community Relations Bureau in early June.” Although a start, CIS will not be able to provide a comprehensive solution for all of the department’s mental health pickup problems.
Giordano declined to describe the training that will be required of these officers, saying instead that the department will provide a “wide array of training specific to crisis intervention in conjunction with our local mental health providers.”
“To be clear, this squad will not handle all mental health pickups,” Sgt. Howard said, “but will be assigned during those days and hours that we have identified as having the highest quantity of requests to maximize their impact.”
In recent years, the Phoenix Police Department’s impact has been measured in bodies.
Zach Pithan was 23, and he suffered from bipolar disorder. According to official reports, four officers from the PPD were required to subdue the 150-pound Pithan, and in fearing for their lives the police shot and killed him.
Timothy Sean O’Brien was trying to get into a pool in a park that was locked. A 25-year-old man who also suffered from bipolar disorder—and whose mother said he “would get agitated,” but not violent, when in a manic state—O’Brien was shot and killed by police who let him get within striking distance with a baseball bat.
Before the PPD got to his house, Raul A. Suarez Jr. had run through his neighbor’s backyard naked, and by the time police arrived, he was in the shower saying how he was both Jesus and Satan. Suarez warned them he had taken heroin and that “you might as well shoot me now.” Police attempted to arrest him in the shower and when he resisted, they used tasers. But when Suarez showed “incredible” strength in the struggle, police shot and killed him.
The morning of December 18, 2014, Joshua Dawson was throwing rocks at a construction worker’s truck. When police showed up, the 35-year-old Dawson, whose mother described him as a “paranoid schizophrenic,” started punching the squad car. When a second officer arrived on the scene, Dawson started throwing knives at the officers, who shot and killed him. Neither officer was injured. Dawson’s father told local media, “This state’s idea of mental health care is either in jail or at the barrel of an officer’s gun.”
Today, Frances Garrett has taken her fight to court. Having been denied entry onto the Mental Health Executive Advisory Board created in the wake of her daughter’s death, she is suing the city on charges of wrongful death, assault and battery, and negligence. “Sgt. Dupra,” Garrett’s notice of claim (a legal precursor to a lawsuit) reads, “used lethal deadly force on Michelle when he could have easily receded. He could have taken the necessary time to communicate with Michelle in order to build trust and alleviate her fears.” Represented by a lawyer known in the Phoenix area as “Mr. Big-Shot Attorney,” Garrett is asking for $7 million.
“Of 58 shooting claims,” the Republic noted, “four received bodily-injury pay and three received money for property damage.” Two other cases revolving around fatal shootings were awarded nothing. Larger payouts, upwards of $8 million, have been possible when Maricopa County’s high-profile sheriff, Joe Arapio, has been involved.
But without a larger-than-life figure to rally against, speaking for those who are often unable to speak for themselves, Garrett and others in Phoenix fighting for the rights of the mentally ill are often relegated to the shadows.
The coming lawsuit will determine if they can finally step into the light.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]