Like all mothers, Amity Dimock loves her son. “Kobe was my first child, the first love of my life,” she said. “You don’t understand real love until you have a child. We had a very special bond.”
On August 31, 2019, Kobe Dimock-Heisler, who had autism and mental illness, was killed by Brooklyn Center police after his grandfather called 911 to report that they had had an argument that had escalated to threats of physical violence. He was concerned about his grandson’s outsized reaction.
Dimock explained that her 21-year-old son had a history of self-harm and that Dimock-Heisler’s grandfather called police because he was concerned that his grandson might hurt himself: “His only history of harm to anybody was to himself.”
Dimock said that Kobe calmed down before officers arrived, and his grandfather called the police to tell them not to come. But it was too late: Four Brooklyn Center police officers — Brandon Akers, Steve Holt, Cody Turner and Joseph Vu — pulled up.
At this point, reports of what happened at the scene vary depending on the source. (Most of the events were captured on the officers’ body cams. Those images were made available to the public.) Dimock and her supporters say that Dimock-Heisler’s grandfather met the officers at the door and told them they weren’t needed, but they explained that they had to look at everybody in the house to confirm that the situation was under control. The four officers then entered the home.
While police were in the house, Vu, a trainee, was assigned to work with Dimock-Heisler. The situation escalated, there was a struggle, and Dimock-Heisler was tased multiple times. Upset by the idea that he might be sent to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, he ran from the officers, retrieving an object from a couch that police say was a paring knife. According to a report filed in August 2020 by the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, Dimock-Heisler attempted to stab Vu with the knife. (His family objects to this description.) Officers shot him multiple times. He died at the scene.
Dimock-Heisler’s death adds to a growing list of people in mental health crisis who have been killed by police. When Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced his decision not to file charges against the officers in the case, the family felt that justice had not been served. Last month they joined Communities United Against Police Brutality (CUAPB), a Twin Cities-based volunteer-run watchdog group, in filing a federal wrongful death civil suit against the Brooklyn Center Police Department.
Michelle Gross, CUAPB co-founder, said her organization conducted a reinvestigation of the case and felt they had grounds to file the suit. She explained that CUAPB often reinvestigates cases.
“One of our workgroups is a reinvestigation group,” Gross said. “After the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) does their investigation, we go out and reinvestigate cases involving police brutality or death to understand if their investigation was good quality. We find, frankly, that the BCA often does a poor job of investigating these cases.”
Sometimes, these reinvestigations result in legal action. Other times, Gross said, CUAPB determines that the organization’s attorneys have no grounds to take on a case.
“Our lawyers can’t take on cases where there is no basis,” she said. “There are cases that we turn down because they aren’t founded. But I do think this is a very good case. Our reinvestigation found things that led us to believe that the police made serious mistakes. I don’t believe that Kobe needed to die that day.”
The CUAPB reinvestigation group claims that Akers turned away a fifth officer who showed up that day — Sarah Frye, an officer they say is a nationally-recognized expert in handling domestic calls.
Jason M. Hiveley, an attorney representing the City of Brooklyn Center and the involved police officers, declined to comment further on the case. “We are in the process of evaluating the claims in the complaint and will be filing our answer in the next few weeks,” he said.
Gross explained that CUAPB sees lawsuits like this one not only as a show of support for families of people affected by police violence, but also as a way to challenge accepted ways of policing.
“We believe it is important to do things like file lawsuits as well to try to change policies,” she said. “It is an effective tool that we can use to make a difference in these kinds of cases.”
‘A mental health crisis is not a criminal matter’
Gross believes that too often, when a person experiencing a mental health crisis interacts with police, the result can be deadly. Her organization is actively working to change that reality.
“What we know is that 50 percent of people killed by police have a mental health diagnosis,” she said. “Quite a number of them are in a mental health crisis at the time of their killing.” This fact was made all too clear in 2018, she said, when, “five people were killed by police across the state between Thanksgiving and Christmas while they were in the throes of a mental health crisis. That was just too much.”
In response to these incidents, in early 2019 CUAPB formed a mental health work group. The group, Gross said, “wrote a very robust white paper on ending police-only responses to mental health crisis.” The ultimate result of that work led to Travis’ Law, a 2021 law named for Travis Jordan, a man with mental illness who was shot and killed by police in 2018. The law requires state 911 center dispatchers to send mental health crisis teams rather than police to most mental health crisis calls.
“Basically,” Gross said, “what the law means is that 911 call centers shouldn’t do the knee-jerk reaction and just call the cops.” When the law was passed, all of Minnesota’s 87 counties had mental health crisis teams. Travis’ Law just required dispatchers to use those teams when appropriate, she said: “We are asking 911 to educate themselves on how to detect mental health crisis calls and send mental health responders first instead of police.”
Dispatching police to deal with a person in crisis is, Gross said, “absolutely bad protocol. When people are dealing with a mental health crisis they should be trying to de-escalate. For a number of reasons, police often are not good at de-escalation.”
She said that bodycam footage from the day of the killing shows Vu standing close to Dimock-Heisler and peppering him with questions, something Gross said actually escalated the situation. Professionals trained in mental health crisis response know that the best way to work with a person in crisis is to step back and speak to them in a low, calm voice, giving them time and space to respond.
While a police presence is appropriate in many situations, most officers are not trained to help calm a person like Dimock-Heisler in the middle of a crisis, Gross said. The point of Travis’ Law is to make sure that the right professionals show up in the right situation.
“If there is a house fire,” she said, “the fire department should be the primary responders. If I’m having chest pains, I want an ambulance, not the police.”
This approach supports Gross’ belief that having a mental health crisis is not against the law. “By taking law enforcement out of the situation, what we’re saying is that a mental health crisis is not a criminal matter. Why do we criminalize mental health? It doesn’t work and it’s not right. We’re trying to get the right responders to respond.”
The cards stacked against him
While CUAPB is a volunteer-run organization, the two lawyers who file cases on their behalf are paid employees. Paul Bosman, a Twin Cities attorney, works full time for the group. He said he believes that the BCA’s report, as well as Freeman’s decision not to bring charges in the case, were flawed. Dimock-Heisler, an agitated 6’3” Black man with autism and mental illness, had the cards stacked against him.
“I do know that what we see, not just here in Minnesota but across the country, is that people of color who have interactions with the police are going to have more negative outcomes,” Bosman said. “People of color who have a mental illness are even more likely to have negative outcomes with police.”
Once the officers entered his grandparents’ home, the chances of Dimock-Heisler being shot rose dramatically, Bosman said: “I think it is a reasonable thing for a person to believe that because Kobe was big and Black and had a mental health issue he had a higher chance of having a bad outcome with police. Was it because he was young and African American and mentally ill? Was it all three of those things?”
Bosman said that Dimock-Heisler was also developmentally delayed, and that fact will be a centerpiece of his case. A professional trained in working with people in mental health crisis might have been able to recognize this about the irritated young man and respond appropriately; the Brooklyn Center police in this case did not, he added.
“We’re talking about someone with the mental capacity of a child who may or may not have been holding a three-inch paring knife. There are four officers in the room, enough to control him. The officer in charge instead fires a shot downward, killing Kobe. That’s a tragedy any way you cut it.”
Lori Bardal is a CUAPB volunteer and a member of the expanded response subcommittee created as part of Brooklyn Center’s Daunte Wright and Kobe Dimock-Heisler Community Safety and Violence Prevention Resolution. She said that both groups advocate for appropriate response to 911 calls involving people in mental health crisis.
“We’re leaning toward the co-response model, where a mental health professional dressed in street clothes will go in first. The police officer will be around the corner, not visible, so it doesn’t escalate the situation. They are there to provide backup if they need it.”
Police often make the person who died look like the bad guy, Bardal said, but if mental health responders are there during a mental health crisis, tragedy can be prevented. “Kobe was not a criminal: He was just having a bad day. Everybody has a bad day. You shouldn’t die because of that,” she said.
‘He never hurt anybody one day in his life’
Dimock, who said she is “not anti-police,” finds it troubling that police reports seem to focus on Kobe’s size as a factor in the officers’ decision to use deadly force. “It seems they all start with something about how large he was,” she said, “but they don’t add that he had the mentality of a 9-year-old: He was basically a child in a big, tall body.”
Dimock said that the three years since her son died sometimes feel like they’ve passed in an instant. Other days it seems like it’s been a lifetime. She sees the CUAPB lawsuit as a way to clear her son’s name — and to hold the police officers who killed him accountable for their actions. She wants them to see that Kobe was a person who mattered — a creative soul who enjoyed riding bicycle rickshaws with his father, who rode in the annual May Day Parade, who liked to crochet, who loved to cook and dreamed about one day making food for a living.
Dimock wants people to know that for her, the suit is about much more than financial gain: “The only other recourse I have is a civil case. Screw you if you think it is just about money. This is about my child. He never hurt anybody one day in his life. It was wrong. You tell me I should just accept it? I will not.”