- Eva Ruth Moravec Special to the American-Statesman
Three minutes passed between friendly fist-bump and deadly shooting.
State trooper Timothy Keele spotted Garrett Steven McKinney on the evening of Sept. 21, 2015, straddling a concrete highway barrier in the North Texas town of Paris. McKinney, still built as he was during his football days at Austin’s Bowie High School, was waving his arms and kicking up his legs at passing cars.
What Keele didn’t know: McKinney, 21, had paranoid schizophrenia. He struggled to stay on his medications. He just moved to the area a week ago to live with his father. His father had dropped him off outside the nearby hospital that day to seek treatment. Two and a half hours had passed, and McKinney still hadn’t gone inside.
“Come here,” Keele called out to McKinney, according to dashboard camera video.
Then the trooper asked: “What are you doing?”
“I don’t know man, walking around,” said McKinney, reaching out for a fist bump.
But the exchange soon gave way to a violent struggle once Keele tried to detain McKinney for obstructing traffic on a highway, a Class B misdemeanor. McKinney slugged the trooper in the head. Keele fired his Taser, to no effect. In the melee, McKinney grabbed the 39-year-old trooper’s left arm and Keele “felt sharp pain,” according to reports. His shoulder had been dislocated. The trooper tried to fight back but realized his arm wasn’t working.
“That scared the hell out of me,” the officer later said in his voluntary statement to Texas Rangers investigating the incident. “McKinney was hitting me, and I could not defend myself. I pulled my duty weapon and fired two shots in his chest. McKinney was still coming at me. I thought, ‘How is this guy still attacking me?’ I fired two more shots.”
Keele’s bosses and fellow troopers believe he was justified in using deadly force. A grand jury cleared him in December of any wrongdoing. Keele has even received two awards for the injuries he suffered in that altercation: The state presented him with a Purple Heart in June, and Gov. Greg Abbott gave him the Star of Texas award in September.
But McKinney’s family and mental health advocates say McKinney’s death underscores the need for Texas law enforcement officers to have more training on handling the mentally ill so they can learn how to defuse situations instead of resorting to lethal force.
“I just think that if you’d have approached him with kindness, since he wasn’t doing anything really illegal,” the outcome could have been different, said McKinney’s mother, Sherene Mayner, who still lives in Austin. “But that was what the officer stuck on, that ‘I’m going to detain you because you were waving at cars.’ That just seems a little silly.”
A call for more training
McKinney was one of 169 people who were shot by Texas law enforcement officers from September 2015 to September 2016, after a new state law required agencies to fill out a one-page report on all officer-involved shootings.
Department of Public Safety troopers were involved in 11 of those shootings, eight of which were fatal.
The new reporting requirement was intended to provide hard data on shootings and fatalities by race, as well as altercations involving unarmed people. But the reports don’t track how many cases involve people suffering from a mental breakdown.
While there are no statewide figures, national data tracked by The Washington Post indicated that nearly 25 percent of the 991 people shot and killed by police in the U.S. in 2015 showed signs of a mental illness.
Austin has seen a couple of such cases this year, including the February police shooting of David Joseph, an unarmed, naked teen who appeared to be having a mental health crisis. After last weekend’s fatal shooting of 26-year-old Micah Jester, who repeatedly yelled for officers to kill her before she raised a BB gun at them, civil rights attorney Jim Harrington called for Austin police to employ an independent review of how officers handle mental health calls and encounters with suicidal people.
Since 2005, Texas law enforcement cadets have been required to take 16 hours of crisis intervention training, plus occasional refresher courses as sworn officers. That law was named after Bob Meadours, a mentally ill Pasadena man who was shot and killed by officers after his family called for help.
But in the 2017 legislative session, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas, or NAMI, will seek to increase that cadet training requirement to 40 hours, said Greg Hansch, NAMI’s public policy director. That level of training, which brings together police and mental health experts, is nationally accepted as a best practice and is recommended by the Police Executive Research Forum.
“The 40-hour training teaches how to tell, based on the observable indicators, whether or not someone is in crisis,” Hansch said. “The 16 hours is not sufficient to train a rank-and-file police officer in making an appropriate intervention when someone is exhibiting signs of mental illness.”
Some police departments, including the Austin Police Department, Travis County sheriff’s office and the Williamson County sheriff’s office, already use the 40-hour course to establish crisis intervention teams, or CITs. The course is based on a model that the Memphis Police Department created in 1988.
According to the University of Memphis’ CIT Center, officers with this training are better at identifying someone with a mental illness and at interacting with them during a crisis. They are trained to use de-escalation techniques to improve safety and are also well-versed on the resources available in their community and how to access them.
The DPS doesn’t have a CIT, but cadets receive 24 hours of crisis intervention training, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said. In addition, the DPS now requires field officers to take an 8-hour de-escalation course taught by the Texas Police Association.
All Texas officers must take a 20-hour refresher course every four years that covers many topics, including crisis intervention, according to state law.
The struggle begins
When he started at Bowie High in 2008, McKinney found success on the football field. He had the right build, had played the game for years and excelled, joining the varsity team as a sophomore.
He did fairly well in school and built a robust group of friends, thanks in part to football, said Mayner, his mother. But one day, McKinney came home and told his mother his coaches were out to get him. Eventually he quit football, grew apart from most of his friends and earned his diploma at an alternative school in 2011.
Schizophrenia tends to show up in the late teens to early 20s for men and even later for women. NAMI estimates that 10 million Americans — 1 in 25 — lives with a serious mental illness, and 2.4 million, or 1 in 100 Americans, suffers from schizophrenia. Even more face episodic problems: 1 in 5 Americans experiences a mental health condition each year.
By late 2013, McKinney’s psychotic episodes were a regular occurrence. In February 2014, Mayner called 911 after McKinney was upset about posts on Facebook that he couldn’t find. The officers determined McKinney wasn’t a threat to himself or others.
Twice, Mayner helped her son check into mental health facilities. He’d start feeling better after about 30 days, Mayner said. Then he would then stop taking his medicine and check himself out. The downward spiral resumed.
Three out of four schizophrenic patients stop taking their medication within 18 months of being discharged from the hospital because they don’t think the medicine is working or dislike the side effects, according to a 2010 article in Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology. Some medications can cause muscle spasms, uncontrolled movements of the face, fingers and toes, or feelings of restlessness. Others can make a person feel sedated.
Life with McKinney took patience. He wouldn’t let anyone photograph him for fear that he’d end up in some database. Even when he agreed to be hospitalized, Mayner said hours could pass before he would walk inside.
“He really wished he was not sick,” Mayner said. “He cried a lot about that. He would be sad, and he just wanted to be normal. He just wanted someone to love him.”
‘A tragic loss’
McKinney had moved in with his father on a 30-acre spread just outside Paris a week before he was shot.
On Sept. 21, 2015, McKinney had been dancing around and talking to himself. His father dropped him off at Paris Regional Medical Center around 4:30 p.m., expecting that his son would eventually go inside. But a Texas Ranger who later watched the hospital’s security videos said cameras never show McKinney entering the facility, according to the DPS report.
Instead, McKinney met Keele.
The trooper had served in the U.S. Army, working on tanks in Colorado. He later moved to Abilene, where he worked for electric and cable companies. In 2007, he became a DPS trooper and bought a home in Paris. He loved small town life.
“They shut off the square, and we have Christmas and Thanksgiving and parades,” he told a state employee in a 2014 interview, according to records released by the DPS.
His annual reviews track his career progression to Trooper III, a title he obtained last year, and portray Keele as a competent officer.
He has received only one complaint that resulted in disciplinary action for violating policies. He was suspended without pay for one day in February 2015 and told to attend an “Effective Decision Making” course after tracking down and scolding a 17-year-old driver who had cut him off in traffic the previous day.
After inquiries were made for this story, the DPS said Friday that Keele finally took the class Wednesday.
As a cadet, Keele received at least the required 16 hours of crisis intervention training. It came eight years before his path crossed McKinney’s.
Experts who watched the dashboard camera video of that encounter agree that once McKinney started throwing punches, Keele appeared justified in using his Taser and then his gun.
But they also wondered why the trooper acted so quickly to try to arrest McKinney on a minor offense, particularly since McKinney appeared to be exhibiting signs of mental illness and was standing so close to a hospital.
Frederick Shenkman, a University of Florida criminology professor emeritus, said the video gave him “ some concerns about (McKinney’s) mental status,” adding McKinney’s behavior was “a little sketchy.”
DPS reports state Keele feared for his life in the ensuing struggle. In a nomination letter for the Purple Heart award, reserved for officers who are seriously injured on the job, Keele’s sergeant wrote that he underwent eight months of recovery before returning to regular duties.
In an email statement, Vinger said the incident “was thoroughly investigated,” leading to Keele being cleared internally and by a grand jury.
“It is tragic and regrettable anytime there is a loss of life,” Vinger’s statement said. “It is also regrettable anytime a trooper is injured in the line of duty.”