After three months of protests calling for an end to police violence, San Antonio activists are out on the streets in force this week. They previously chanted the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, as well as Black people killed by law enforcement in San Antonio, like Charles “Chop” Roundtree, Marquise Jones and Antronie Scott.
A new name now rings from their lips.
Damian Daniels was a Black combat veteran. He experienced a mental health crisis earlier this week, and he and his family placed four calls to emergency dispatchers and the Red Cross requesting assistance from Monday through Tuesday. While responding to the final call, Bexar County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed him.
The officers claimed he tried to pull a gun. Complete bodycam footage has not been released. Sheriff Javier Salazar was not available for an interview.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a statement that after reviewing the details of Daniels’ killing, the incident should have never happened.
“I am asking County Manager David Smith through the Mental Health Department to review this case and to recommend changes in policy. In cases like this, with known mental health issues, it may have been better to send crises mental health professionals rather than deputies with guns and uniforms,” said Wolff.
That same day, Mathias Ometu was arrested by San Antonio police officers.
Ometu is Black, and the San Antonio Police Department said he fit the description of a suspect. He was not the person they were looking for, but they arrested him and charged him with felony assault after he refused to identify himself.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted that he is seeking a “full accounting” of his arrest.
Since the police killing of George Floyd in late May, the network of San Antonio activists and organizers has expanded. When Daniels was killed, they quickly put together a protest.
They chanted Damian Daniel’s name inside the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. Two people were detained, and one of them was later arrested for criminal mischief.
Outside, an off-duty deputy’s truck was blocked by protesters, according to a BCSO spokesperson.
The spokesperson said someone painted “ACAB” on the vehicle. The deputy sprayed the protesters with pepper spray. BCSO Internal Affairs is looking into the incident.
Activists heard a man yelling from inside the Bexar County Jail, where many inmates with histories of mental illness have died in police custody. Some call it “death row for the mentally ill.” The vast majority of people in the jail are held without a criminal conviction ahead of their trials solely because they cannot afford bail.
The man yelled about inmates not seeing a courtroom for years and not receiving any mail.
“We need y’all,” he shouted to protesters.
As they milled around the building, Mathias Ometu was held inside before he later posted $20,000 bail.
On Tuesday, SAPD stopped the wrong Black person — Ometu — and then arrested him. That same day, BCSO shot a Black man who was in a mental health crisis. And at the start of the week, Jacob Blake’s name made national headlines after police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot him seven times in the back. Law enforcement violence has fueled tensions, and protests are likely to intensify over the weekend.
On Friday, protests continued near the sheriff’s office.
BCSO is closely monitoring the ~50 protesters. Two employees are filming from the parking garage roof, & a surveillance drone is hovering overhead.
Family members of Marquise Jones & Antronie Scott — two Black men killed by law enforcement — have spoken to the group. @TPRNews pic.twitter.com/JDy5VwYdg2— Dominic Anthony Walsh (@_DominicAnthony) August 29, 2020
Throughout the summer, different activists have suggested varied approaches to addressing police violence. Their proposals fall on a broad spectrum, from incremental reforms to complete abolition. But the majority of protesters agree on one item: armed law enforcement should not respond to most mental health crises.
And local law enforcement officials are on the same page.
“I agree,” Salazar said in an interview with Spectrum News San Antonio. “I think that law enforcement is overly used when it comes to [mental health calls].”
About 19% of fatal police shootings in Texas involve someone with a history of mental illness, according to the Washington Post database.
For community member Alex Birnel, the killing of Damian Daniels brought back memories of David Joseph — a Black 17-year-old who was shot and killed in Austin after officers found him lying naked and unarmed in the road.
“I think mental health episodes require sensitivity, and they require training and a certain demeanor that you don’t frequently see from police,” Birnel said. “The presence of a deadly weapon on an officer is inherently an escalation.”
Months before Bexar County law enforcement killed Daniels, activists told Texas Public Radio that armed law enforcement officers are not appropriate first responders for mental health crises.
Mike Lowe is an advocate for police abolition. He moved to Fort Worth after living in San Antonio. In June, he said law enforcement funds should be reallocated away from police in favor of community-based programs.
“We want to see [police funding] all taken away and utilized as funds and resources to empower communities through education, housing, jobs, safety,” he said. “Public safety can look like you and I being able to look out for our neighbors in the way that neighborhoods should be.”
Marlon Davis is a third-generation resident of San Antonio’s East Side and a community organizer with the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. He told TPR in June that defunding the police department would free up hundreds of millions of dollars to address “pressing needs of mental healthcare or interpersonal violence in a way that officers are not currently trained to do.”
As a military veteran, Damian Daniels had access to the Department Of Veterans Affairs “veteran’s crisis line.” It is unclear if he or his family used the resource.
The BCSO spokesperson said the office has no record that Daniels or his family were referred to the hotline.
To complete training, deputies must take a 40-hour crisis intervention course. According to BCSO, the deputies who struggled with and eventually killed Damian Daniels each had about a hundred hours of training through the course of their multi-year careers.
Many professional crisis intervention specialists complete a four-year degree along with a master’s program in psychology, social work or related studies.
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