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 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.
“What are you doing?” Keele asked as McKinney approached.
“I don’t know man, walking around,” said McKinney, reaching out for a fist bump.
But the friendly introductions 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.”
One year later, Keele’s shoulder has healed and he’s been cleared by a grand jury of any criminal wrongdoing. Keele has received two awards for his line-of-duty injury sustained during the shooting: In June, the State of Texas rewarded Keele with a purple heart for “exemplary service and courageous actions,” and he received a Star of Texas award from Gov. Greg Abbott 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.”
McKinney was one of 169 people Texas officers shot from September 2015 to September 2016, after a new state law began mandating a one-page report of all shootings. He’s one of 11 people shot by a DPS officer in that year. Eight of those encounters were fatal, including the one involving McKinney and two other men who weren’t armed with a knife or a gun.
State reports do not indicate whether any of those shot and killed by Texas officers suffered from mental illness. But McKinney’s mother said her son was diagnosed by his psychiatrist as having paranoid schizophrenia in 2014. His short history with that illness included a cycle of taking medication, getting better and then going off medication to avoid side effects, returning him to delusions and fearful or violent, outbursts.
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.
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.
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 Texas police departments 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 interacting with them during a crisis. They are trained to use deescalation techniques to improve safety and are also well-versed on the resources available in their community and how to access them.
DPS does not have a CIT, but cadets receive 24 hours of crisis intervention training, department spokesman Tom Vinger said. In addition, the agency now requires field officers to take an 8-hour deescalation 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.
A grainy video from Keele’s dashboard cam was among materials released under open records requests. At dusk, Keele stopped his patrol car after spotting McKinney on the highway. Keele got out and summoned McKinney – at 6’3” and 263 pounds — who walked up to the smaller officer, on the hospital lawn. With one hand holding his chicken fried steak in a to-go container, McKinney used the other to give Keele a fist-bump, according to reports, and videos. They spoke briefly, and McKinney gave Keele his driver’s license. McKinney asked for his ID back and Keele told McKinney he was being detained. McKinney started to walk away. Keele follows him, tells him to stand near the curb, and after a few more tense words are exchanged, Keele tells McKinney to “turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
“F–k you,” McKinney replies. Keele threatens to use his Taser if McKinney continues to disobey. When the trooper follows him again, McKinney slugs Keele in the head. The trooper used his Taser, but it was ineffective. At some point, the 21-year-old grabbed the 39-year-old trooper’s left arm and Keele “felt sharp pain.” The trooper tried to fight back but realized his arm wasn’t “working.”
In an emailed statement, Vinger, the DPS spokesman, said the incident “was thoroughly investigated,” leading to Keele being cleared both internally and by a grand jury.
“It is tragic and regrettable anytime there is a loss of life,” the statement said. “It is also regrettable anytime a trooper is injured in the line of duty.”
Other DPS shootings
When a DPS officer shoots someone, their policy states that a team of Texas Rangers must investigate it. Typically, the lead investigator is the Ranger assigned to the area where the shooting occurred.
Members of the investigatory team speak the DPS employee at the scene, then make arrangements to follow up with a detailed interview the following day so the officer may rest, the policy states.
For all fatal shootings, officers may listen to all recorded audio and watch video footage before making their statement. Keele gave his statement to a Texas Ranger two days after the shooting at the DPS office in Paris.
Of the 11 people shot by a DPS trooper from September 2015 to September 2016, seven people were categorized by officers as white or Anglo, two were African American, and two were Hispanic. DPS could not say how many officers were disciplined for the 11 shootings, but undoubtedly, Keele was not.
‘The coaches are out to get me’
Sitting in her Austin home, Sherene Mayner spoke recently about her son and his high school years when his mental illness first began to surface. Mayner and McKinney’s father, Steven McKinney, divorced in 1999. For years, McKinney and his brother lived with their father in Frisco. But they moved in with their mother in 2008, when McKinney started as a freshman at Bowie High School.
There, 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, Mayner said. 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 finished high school at an alternative school in 2011. It took two more years for Mayner to realize that something was seriously wrong.
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 – one in 25 – lives with a serious mental illness, and 2.4 million, or one in 100 Americans, suffers from schizophrenia. Even more face episodic problems – one in five Americans experiences a mental health condition each year.
By late 2013, McKinney’s psychotic episodes were a regular occurrence. In February 2014, the Mayners called 9-1-1 after McKinney was upset about posts on Facebook that he then couldn’t find. The officers left after determining McKinney wasn’t a threat to himself or others.
Twice, Mayner helped her son check into mental health facilities. He’d start feeling better, then check himself out and stop taking his medicine. Without treatment, though, his psychotic behavior would return.
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 the 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, hours could pass before he would walk inside, Mayner said.
In January of 2015, the Mayners decided they could no longer live with McKinney and called 9-1-1 for police to assist. McKinney headed for the Dallas area, where he lived in an apartment until he moved in with his father in September.
“He really wished he was not sick. He cried a lot about that. He would be sad, and he just wanted to be normal,” Mayner said. “He just wanted someone to love him.”
Life in a small town
Keele is still based at the DPS office in Paris and declined to comment for this story. A limited picture of his life emerges through prayer requests posted on the Lamar Avenue Church of Christ’s site and records released from DPS, which employs both Keele and his wife.
He served in the US Army in Colorado, where he worked on tanks. In 2000, he moved to Abeline, where he worked for electric and cable companies. The Keeles bought a house in Paris seven years later. 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 DPS. He and his wife are members of the Lamar Avenue Church of Christ, whose prayer requests often include the family.
He received the required crisis intervention training in 2007 as part of his trooper academy courses, according to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. His annual reviews track his career progression to Trooper III, a title he obtained last year, and portray Keele as a competent officer. In his nine years with DPS he has received only one complaint that resulted in disciplinary action for violating policies. His annual reviews track his career progression to Trooper III, a title he obtained last year, and portray Keele as a competent officer.
In 2014, Monica Hevron said her son was the victim of official oppression by Keele, according to the complaint with the state’s Office of the Inspector General. An investigator concluded Keele was both aggressive and confrontational towards Hevron’s 17-year-old son, Tanner, who pulled out in a truck in front of Keele’s vehicle near Paris High School one evening.
According to the DPS records, Keele followed the truck and approached Tanner Hevron at a stop sign. In plainclothes and without identifying himself, Keele confronted the teen, who blew Keele off and told him to talk to his “f—king dad.” The next day, Keele – in uniform – returned to the school and scolded Hevron, prompting Monica Hevron to allege Keele abused his authority. The inspector agreed that Keele “improperly utilized” his position of authority, violating DPS’ 10 General Orders, records show. Keele was suspended without pay for one day in February and told to attend an “Effective Decision Making” course, which he postponed after being injured.
DPS initially said that Keele’s injury had kept him from taking the class. He eventually took it Oct. 19, a DPS spokeswoman said.
When McKinney was shot, Hevron heard from others in town the trooper had been injured, and first, Hevron said in a recent interview, she prayed for his health. But then she thought: “You know, that could have been my Tanner… This Garrett kid might still be alive if (Keele) would approach people differently.”
Vinger, said that DPS “categorically rejects any attempt to link prior discipline to the shooting. They are completely unrelated.”
A littered scene
McKinney had moved in with his father on a 30-acre spread just outside Paris only one week before he was shot.
His father dropped Garrett McKinney off at the hospital around 4:30 p.m., expecting that his son would eventually go inside. But a ranger who later watched the hospital’s security videos said cameras never show McKinney entering the facility, according to a copy of the DPS report.
At 7 p.m., Keele was driving home for supper when he saw McKinney straddling the concrete barrier on the highway, “waving at traffic and kicking his feet in the air.” By the time they first met, McKinney was walking on hospital grounds. Keele asked why McKinney was “sitting out there messing with traffic,” which he called an illegal act.
Their encounter escalated quickly from a fist bump to a fist fight only after the officer takes McKinney’s ID and then tries to arrest him.
Once McKinney started throwing punches, experts who viewed the dashcam video agreed Keele appeared justified in using a Taser and then his gun. But both also wondered why the trooper acted so quickly to attempt to arrest McKinney, who’d committed only a minor offense, appeared to be exhibiting signs of mental illness and was standing so close to a hospital.
In the emailed statement, DPS said Keele “clearly states why he initially makes contact.”
Jennifer Laurin, a professor at the School of Law at the University of Texas at Austin, said after watching the video that it struck her as an example of “how dash cam video” provides only an incomplete picture of use-of-force incidents.
Frederick Shenkman, a criminology professor emeritus at the University of Florida, said “had 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 surgery and eight months of recovery before returning to regular duties.
According to a list provided by DPS of purple heart recipients, there have been 56 such awards since the awards began in 2005.
A search of Public Safety Commission minutes, archives of DPS’ monthly newsletter “Chaparral” and news stories revealed details on 47 of those incidents, with nine unreported, showing that Keele is among a dozen officers who were awarded for incidents that killed the person who injured them. Keele is the only officer of the 47 recipients who was rewarded for the fatal shooting of an unarmed person.
DPS records show that Keele was being treated at the hospital the night of the shooting when Mayner said she called the emergency room inquiring about McKinney. She said she was told, “I see his name, but he’s not here.” Hospital spokeswoman Erin Barnes did not respond to phone calls.
Join Point of Impact’s email list today at www.pointofimpacttx.com, and follow the series on Twitter @POI_TX. This project is sponsored by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.