DuPage shooting death brings race, police, mental health issues to forefront

  • It was inside this townhouse in the Brandywine neighborhood near Villa Park that a DuPage County sheriff's deputy, who has not been publicly named, shot and killed 17-year-old Trevon Johnson while responding to a domestic violence call.

    It was inside this townhouse in the Brandywine neighborhood near Villa Park that a DuPage County sheriff's deputy, who has not been publicly named, shot and killed 17-year-old Trevon Johnson while responding to a domestic violence call. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

Updated 1/8/2017 7:52 AM

The death of Trevon Johnson likely will resonate long beyond the 17-year-old Villa Park resident's memorial service today and the state police probe into the officer-involved shooting.

Johnson was shot multiple times late Jan. 1 after a confrontation with a DuPage County sheriff's deputy in the Johnson family home after multiple 911 calls for help during a domestic crisis.


It was a local episode highlighting nationwide concern about such shootings, especially involving black victims and white officers.

It comes as experts say there's a need for more mental health training for police, and that there are gaps throughout a mental health system hobbled by state government funding cuts -- in the mental health code, in hospitals, schools, treatment centers and communities.

It also raised questions about whether body cameras for sheriff's deputies could have produced critical evidence and answered questions about what the officer saw when he arrived and whether Johnson was holding a knife, as the deputy told investigators.

Finally, members of an activist group called Unity Partnership say Johnson's death helped show them why their work -- to improve two-way relationships between police departments and minority communities -- remains vital in the rapidly changing suburbs.

Trevon Johnson, 17, was shot and killed late Jan. 1 by a DuPage County sheriff's deputy inside his family's townhouse near Villa Park.
Trevon Johnson, 17, was shot and killed late Jan. 1 by a DuPage County sheriff's deputy inside his family's townhouse near Villa Park.
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Simmering at or just below the surface in DuPage County and across the nation, these issues of race, policing and mental health seem intertwined in the death of Trevon Johnson.

As state police search for answers, Johnson's family seeks compassion and justice, and activists seek understanding between police and diverse populations -- the social issues so pertinent in his death continue to rise to the forefront.

The fatal shootings of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014 in Chicago and 17-year-old Justus Howell in April 2015 in Zion are two local cases that have drawn national attention as instances of black citizens killed by white cops.

There have been protests, lawsuits and cries for reforms.

But until Johnson's shooting, there hadn't been a recent such case in DuPage County. His was the first fatal shooting by a DuPage County sheriff's deputy in more than 20 years, and the first in DuPage since three Lisle officers shot and killed a home invader in October 2015.

"We always knew eventually something would happen in DuPage," Woodridge Police Chief Brian Cunningham said. "And in preparation of that, we wanted to have a foundation where we have good relationships with the community."


Reversing 'mistrust'

It hasn't always been that way, says Paul Scott of Bloomingdale, a retired businessman involved with an activist group called Unity Partnership. The DuPage-based group formed after the death of former Villa Park and Naperville resident Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell in July 2015 and is working to improve police relations with minority communities.

Scott says it would go a long way if suburban police chiefs would apologize for the sometimes discriminatory ways their profession as a whole has behaved in the past. Historically, police departments have been "part of a system that has been used inappropriately" toward minority groups, Scott said.

And while this doesn't mean current department leaders have done anything wrong, Scott has told chiefs it means "your profession has been used as a tool to create the mistrust that is affecting your work now."

Already, the work Unity Partnership leaders and DuPage police chiefs have done has prevented public reaction to Johnson's shooting from "blowing up," Cunningham said.

"At this point, we can't rush to judgment," Unity Partnership President Regina Brent of Aurora said about the Trevon Johnson case. "We don't know exactly what happened. There is due process."

The process is that Illinois State Police conduct an investigation into the deputy and the circumstances of the shooting, with the results turned over to the DuPage County state's attorney's office for review once the probe is complete.

Gaps in the system

What might have started as a mental health emergency didn't have to end this way, experts say.

If Johnson was in crisis -- his brother in one of three 911 calls answers a dispatcher's question about whether Johnson has a history of mental illness by saying "I think so" -- multiple people or agencies could have stepped in before the situation became an emergency, says Mike Hoffman, education and community outreach director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness branch in DuPage.

This doesn't make the shooting a blame game, he says, but an illustration of the gaps in the suburban mental health system.

Being mentally ill isn't a crime, so the person has to be presenting a clear danger to himself or others before police can force an examination. At the hospital, beds are scarce and funding is tight, so some patients are sent home shortly after being brought in by police, Hoffman said. The same can happen when people try to seek treatment on their own. Experts say there is a shortage of psychiatrists, and some insurance plans make it tough to find a provider.

But there are steps families can take, says Patricia Doyle, who runs a DuPage County-based mental health training business called Vision for Change.

Families can meet with police to discuss their loved one's mental condition when that person is having a stable day. They can sign up for "Smart 911" programs in many areas that allow residents to enter information about diagnoses and medications that could help first responders. They can join a Family to Family group at a local mental illness alliance branch to learn coping mechanisms and connect with peers for support, Hoffman said.

Avoid using force

These gaps in mental health diagnosis, treatment, funding and family support show the responsibility to prevent crises from turning tragic doesn't fall squarely on police. But for officers, it often feels like the duty is all theirs, says Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.

"Fair or not, that's just the way things are working out," he said.

So departments are doing their best to respond and prepare. Mainly, they're seeking Crisis Intervention Team training for their officers. The program teaches signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and ways to communicate with someone in a mental health crisis. It adapts the traditional police technique of de-escalation to be appropriate for people with mental illnesses and also imparts empathy.

"It's training officers to try to use verbal skills literally to talk a person down so they can try to avoid using force," said Steven Casstevens, Buffalo Grove police chief and president of the statewide chiefs association.

Another trend in policing -- the move toward on-body cameras for patrol officers -- could have played a role in the investigation if the DuPage County sheriff's department had been authorized to buy them in 2015.

Two county board members who supported the cameras then now are saying the footage could have helped answer whether Johnson was armed and what went on before the officer fired several shots.

That's significant, because the 911 recordings don't paint a complete picture. In two calls, Johnson's sister and brother say Trevon had a knife, but in a third, another relative said he had put it down. Afterward, the family denied he was armed at the time of the shooting.

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