SOUTH BEND — Brianna Johnson had a sinking feeling late Friday morning that something bad was about to happen.
The 28-year-old South Bend resident was visiting a family friend near North Sheridan Street when she saw police cars racing by and officers jumping out, rifles in hand.
More and more squad cars arrived to the scene, having been called about 11:45 a.m. on reports of a suicidal man with a gun. They formed a semi-circle around a Black man — later identified as 51-year-old Dante Kittrell — who appeared to be pacing and gesticulating near the baseball field of Coquillard Elementary School.
That’s when Johnson took out her phone and began posting a video of the developing standoff to Facebook, even though she has never used the social media’s live video feature before.
PreviouslySouth Bend police shoot, kill man in standoff near Coquillard Elementary School
“I had a really bad feeling the whole entire time, and that is honestly what warranted me to pull out my phone,” she said. “I’ve never went live on Facebook in my life. But something just in my gut was telling me that the situation wasn’t right; that something wasn’t right about it.”
A little over 12 minutes later, members of the South Bend Police Department’s SWAT team shot and killed Kittrell following a 40-minute standoff.
“Oh my God. No, no no,” Johnson says in the video immediately after the sound of gunfire is heard.
A statement issued by the St. Joseph County Police Department, which is investigating the shooting along with Mishawaka police, said Kittrell threatened to shoot multiple times before pointing the gun at officers and that officers on the scene tried to deescalate the situation.
Johnson’s video, which has over 10,000 views as of Monday, captures the last several minutes and aftermath of that standoff.
Most of it shows the line of police cars with officers standing behind, perhaps talking with Kittrell, though it’s too far across Sheridan and the athletic field to hear what he or police say. Several bystanders can be heard talking and hoping for a peaceful end.
Eventually, a SWAT truck arrives and drives onto the field where the standoff is occurring with its lights flashing. Seconds after the SWAT truck enters the field, a series of several shots can be heard and officers then ran out from behind their police cars. A few minutes later, an ambulance leaves the scene.
‘Like my worst nightmare’
After rewatching the video she took, Johnson said, it is still difficult to see exactly what happened in the moments immediately leading up to Kittrell being shot. But in her mind, the shooting was devastating on a number of levels.
Most viscerally, Kittrell’s mother was present during the confrontation and stood near Johnson as she recorded the video. As Kittrell continued to pace and more police began arriving, Kittrell’s mother pleaded with officers on the perimeter of the scene to let her speak with her son, to no avail, Johnson said.
“She was right there when it happened. She witnessed it,” Johnson said. “She fell to the ground as soon as the shots happened and was just crying hysterically.”
As the mother of a 6-year-old constantly worried for her child’s safety, Johnson said, the tragedy of Kittrell being killed was compounded by the fact his mother witnessed his death.
“Just as a mother, watching that mother see her son being killed, it was like my worst nightmare unfolding before my eyes pretty much,” she said.
By documenting the interaction, Johnson hopes the community is made safer in the long run, though she feels incidents like the one she witnessed can happen anywhere.
“It’s tough to say, but I honestly don’t feel like we’re safe anywhere,” she told a reporter. “It’s happening everywhere. …I honestly can’t say that there is anywhere in this country that I could move to and feel safe. Like, it wouldn’t happen there.”
The rise of personal technology allowing bystanders to record more police interactions has been a positive development, she said.
“I would honestly love to see a change, just an overall change of how we deal with each other, especially African-Americans and people of color in the United States,” she said. “I really want to see more regard for human life, honestly.”
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Johnson, who said she works with autistic children, wasn’t close enough to hear what police were saying to Kittrell or how he was responding, but said it was clear the man was going through a mental health crisis. Making someone with a mental illness feel cornered rarely ends well, she added.
“Being in a lot of those situations before and knowing how to de-escalate situations, I definitely feel like there was something more that could’ve been done or someone else could’ve stepped in to help,” Johnson said.
“African-Americans … really need to stand together and be more of a village and support system to each other to prevent, as much as possible, some of these incidents from occurring,” she said.
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According to the South Bend Police Department’s revised use of force policy, which was approved by the Board of Public Safety in June 2021, officers “shall attempt to de-escalate situations and use de-escalation tactics to reduce the need for force when safe and feasible under the totality of circumstances.”
The policy also states that officers should not raise their voices or act antagonistically when a situation does not require the use of force.
A South Bend police spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the nature of the police response to the incident and directed reporters to St. Joseph County police. A county police spokesman did not respond to a phone call seeking information about the incident.
The latest statement from St. Joseph County police says, “review of the body and in-car video footage indicate SBPD officers and critical incident negotiators attempted to de-escalate the situation and calm Kittrell for nearly 40 minutes. All efforts were unsuccessful.”
Tribune reporter Mary Shown contributed to this report.
Email Marek Mazurek at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek
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