Lawsuit over death of man hopes to change way police handle mentally ill

Lawsuit over death of man hopes to change way police handle mentally ill
The scene from where Moore was killed. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
The scene from where Moore was killed. (Source: WMC Action News 5)
Officer Phillip Penny (Source: MPD)
Officer Phillip Penny (Source: MPD)
Denvy Buckley (Source: Family)
Denvy Buckley (Source: Family)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - A lawsuit filed against the City of Memphis is centered on crisis intervention training—the first of its kind in the country—and the Memphis "model" for handling situations involving the mentally ill.

The lawsuit came about following the death of a man killed by a Memphis police officer in 2013.

On January 11, 2013, 67-year-old Donald Moore called Shelby County 911 to report a group of men breaking into his Cordova home.

"What are you breaking into my house for?" Moore said during the 911 call. "Better hurry because someone is going to get hurt!"

Moore's panic could be heard in his voice during the call. One minute and 39 seconds into the call, gunfire sounds.

"I am senior.  And I don't know if they shot my animals or not," Moore said, followed by officers yelling at Moore to show his hands.

Donald Moore, who police said pointed a gun at the man who stormed into his bedroom, was shot and killed while talking to a 911 dispatcher.

The strangers Moore feared when he called 911 were 10 Memphis Police TACT officers serving a search warrant.

Police were there because a neighbor complained Moore may not have been taking care of his rabbits and cats.

"At that moment, the officer may not have had a choice, but there are many, many moments leading up to that moment," attorney Jeff Rosenblum said.

Rosenblum is representing Moore's family in a lawsuit against the City of Memphis. The suit claims that despite police records stating Moore had a disability and suffered from mental illness, MPD chose not to enlist the help of officers trained to deal with "mental consumers" to serve the search warrant.

Rosenblum said instead of a calming voice, Moore was met with flash bangs and TACT officer Phillip Penny, armed with an M4 rifle.

"There were comments in his record that said he was a mental consumer, and they knew that or should have known that before they sent the TACT unit," Rosenblum said.

MPD's TACT unit differs from the department's Crisis Intervention Team. CIT officers are trained to "offer a more humane and calm approach" to encounters with mental consumers.

"Let them know we are there to help," CIT officer Christopher Ross said.

Ross is one of 285 Memphis CIT officers. Memphis was the first police department in the country to train mass numbers of officers on how to interact with those with mental illness.

"Kind of delve into their mind set, to figure out what they are going through and how they are going through it," Ross said.

Records show a member of MPD's CIT accompanied officers to Moore's home twice in the days leading up to his death to talk to Moore about his animals.

Moore refused to open the door and called 911 to say he was sick and wanted the officers to leave, which they did.

The day Moore was shot, however, court documents said CIT officers were not asked to intervene. Instead, MPD sent an unmarked armored truck with 10 members of the TACT unit.

"I can't talk about that case. We are not going to know every time there is a mental consumer," Major Vincent Beasley said, when asked about the decision not to send a CIT officer. "We rely on family members. We rely on people in the neighborhood, on homes being flagged, so we will know to go. It's hard to say why anything would happen other than that."

According to Beasley, when a CIT officer is called to a scene, that officer takes control.

Whether or not a CIT officer's presence would have changed the outcome of Donald Moore's encounter is unknown, but records show that even when CIT officers are on site, they are not always in charge.

Calvin Buckley's brother Denvy, a military veteran on medication to treat schizophrenia, died of a heart attack after three Memphis police officers beat him with batons.

"I miss my brother. I miss him after all these years," Calvin Buckley said. "He's lying there dead with gashes in his head. Dead that way, and he is not a criminal, he's a veteran."

Court records show officers were called to Buckley's home during an apparent suicide attempt. Documents state "Buckley became agitated at the sight of several uniformed officers converging."

Documents said when he attempted to return inside, officers forcibly restrained him, using their batons to hit Buckley's head, neck, and torso.

"That's when they knocked him to the ground and all we saw was the black sticks going up and down," a witness said.

Records said after Buckley was on the ground, a baton was placed across his neck. Soon after, he stopped breathing.

"He's trying to commit suicide. Why beat him?" Calvin Buckley asked.

One of the officers wielding a baton that day was Phillip Penny, the same officer who shot and killed Donald Moore 10 years later.

Penny's personnel file shows an internal investigation in which Penny acknowledged, "officers rushed to the situation, causing Mr. Buckley to panic or become afraid," and that a CIT officer was on scene, but was "not allowed to take control of the situation."

Penny was fired, along with two other officers, for using excessive force against Buckley.

Penny sued to get his job back, and returned to the force in 2007.

"That tells me that Memphis condoned that, that violence, to get him back after what he's done," Calvin Buckley said.

Buckley said he believes his brother would still be alive if Memphis Police has allowed the Crisis Intervention Team to be in charge that day—something the Moore family is now trying to prove in their own case 10 years later.

"It's fine to train, but where are we implementing that training?" Rosenblum asked.

The Buckleys settled their own lawsuit against Memphis police.

In Moore's case, a judge decided the case must be based on segmentation, in this case referencing the moment Officer Penny fired the shot that killed Donald Moore, and not the circumstances leading up to the shooting.

The family hopes by pursuing their case, the law is changed to acknowledge every decision made up until the point lethal force is used.

A Memphis police spokesperson denied a request to speak to Officer Penny.

Major Vincent Beasley defended the CIT program and credits training with lowering the injury rate of both officers and those who suffer from mental illness.

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