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Fatal July police shooting of Dante Kittrell ruled justified, prosecutor’s office says

Friends and family members of Dante Kittrell released balloons in his memory on Monday, Aug. 1. Kittrell's death has sparked a debate over mental health crisis response in South Bend.
Screenshot of car cam footage provided by SBPD
Police released body and car camera footage from the July standoff that resulted in the death of Dante Kittrell (center). The St. Joseph County Prosecutor's office ruled the shooting justified, and no charges will be filed.

The St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office has ruled the fatal July police shooting of Dante Kittrell was a justifiable homicide, and that no charges will be filed.

Kittrell was armed and in the midst of a mental health crisis when South Bend police shot and killed him late last month.

According to a news release from the prosecutor’s office, a Coquillard School employee called 911 at 11:36 a.m. on July 29, reporting that an armed man was at the school threatening to commit suicide.

Police arrived at 11:40 a.m. and located Kittrell around 4 minutes later.

They did not see any weapons and spoke with him for about 45 minutes before Kittrell pulled what appeared to be a handgun out of his pocket at 12.29 p.m. He pointed it at officers one minute later, and they then shot him.

An autopsy concluded Kittrell was shot three times and died of the wounds. The investigation later determined that Kittrell was actually holding a highly detailed replica of a tan Glock Model 19 9mm Luger.

The release says body camera footage records Kittrell yelling that he wanted to die and that police would have to kill him multiple times before he was shot while police repeatedly said that they wanted to help him.

A pastor, the release says, identified himself and tried to speak to Kittrell at 12:16 p.m. Kittrell responded by saying that he wanted one of the officers to kill him.

Police negotiators, the release says, tried to speak to Kittrell but he did not respond. Instead, Kittrell kept talking to other officers about what weapons they had, their families, and his desire to die.

When Kittrell pulled what appeared to be a handgun out of his pocket, the release says he first pointed it at the ground, then in the air, and then in the direction of officers to his right while looking to his left.

A SWAT truck then began driving slowly towards him at 12:30 p.m., with some team members following on foot. At that point, Kittrell lowered the apparent handgun and then quickly pointed it at officers by the police negotiator. He was then shot by several officers.

The release says the shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide because officers reasonably believed that their lives were in danger when Kittrell pointed what appears to be a handgun at them.

In a Wednesday news conference, South Bend Police Department spokesperson Ashley O'Chap said 18 officers responded to the scene, arriving at different times throughout the incident. Two were crisis negotiators, who were requested at 11:53 a.m.

Four officers — Randall Goering, Joseph Mitchell, Anthony Dertz and Neil Graber — fired their weapons. The department also played body camera footage of the incident, which matches up with the descriptions provided in the news release by the prosecutor's office.

Officials said they would release the body camera footage, as well as the audio of the 911 call that first reported Kittrell at the school. The department's presentation and the body camera videos have been posted on the department's website. The police department is also conducting an internal investigation into the incident to determine if departmental policies were followed.

The shooting has prompted debates over South Bend’s fledgling mental health crisis response services. Oaklawn currently operates a pilot crisis response team that was established this spring, but it’s small and only responds to calls from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

In the wake of Kittrell’s death, activists say that’s not enough and have called for a robust, city-funded and run team. But city leaders have said the focus should be on supporting existing services.

Police chief Scott Ruszkowski said during the Wednesday news conference that the Oaklawn team wasn't called to the scene because "they would not respond" to an active situation where someone is armed.

Ruszkowski also said that Kittrell was too far away from officers for a taser to be effective, and that police did not use other non-lethal weapons such as a beanbag gun because they believed doing so would make the situation more dangerous by shooting but not incapacitating an "agitated" person with what they believed to be a gun.

"Within the last 48 hours, we've had 2 suicide in progress calls — one with a handgun, the other with a shotgun," Ruszkowski said. "You didn't do any stories on that, there were no Facebook posts, there were no anything on that because they were resolved."

"Why are we charged with the duties, as police officers, to intervene in these calls?" he added.

Mayor James Mueller said it would be "irresponsible" to send an unarmed mobile crisis team out to potentially dangerous situations.

"Why the police? They're the only ones that can respond to a dangerous, armed situation," Mueller said. "This is who we have to respond to these types of dangerous situations."

"When I was watching it, I tried to find, nitpick where would the officers do this or that, and this was an impossible situation that our officers found themselves in," Mueller added. "Unfortunately, [Kittrell] was determined to end his life that day."

The city of South Bend plans to hold a public discussion on mental health crisis response services on Sept. 6 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Brown Intermediate School.

South Bend Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, Justice for Michiana and the Michiana Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression are holding a community town hall on the same subject on Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. in the ballroom of the main branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library in downtown South Bend.

Contact Jakob at jlazzaro@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @JakobLazzaro.

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Updated: August 24, 2022 at 5:53 PM EDT
Updated with details from Aug. 24 South Bend Police Department press conference.
Jakob Lazzaro comes to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.