Fallen: The story behind the story

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The “Fallen” Project was the KXAN investigative team’s reaction to a single shooter killing five police officers in Dallas last summer and a wave of law enforcement officers gunned down across Texas and the country.

We didn’t set out to tell a story about racism, firearms or police shooting other people. Those were already out there. Actually, our story started with two questions on the other side of those conversations: what do these killers have in common, and could the answer to that question help prevent more deaths?

Our research began by identifying the number of Texas peace officers shot and killed in the line of duty since 2000. In the 10 months it took to finish this investigation, that number rose to 79. Next, we dug into each of those cases to find themes in the killers’ backgrounds.

Using the Texas Public Information Act, we requested court records and police reports related to the shootings and also past cases in each killer’s history. We found many had criminal records and violent pasts. A handful were crimes against police. Drug histories were also somewhat prevalent. And there were some who had previously served in the military, law enforcement or both.

As digging into some of the killers’ backgrounds proved more challenging than others, we turned to past media reports, medical records made public during trials, and interviews with people close to the cases – police, attorneys, family members. In the end, perhaps the most startling connection among the many of the killers turned out to be mental illness.

In about a third of the cases, the person pulling the trigger was either diagnosed or showed signs of mental illness at some point before committing their crime.

While sifting through thousands of documents and profiling each fallen officer, we worked to identify the most compelling cases related to mental illness that were pertinent to viewers’ in our Central Texas region. Once those were selected, we requested court records, dash and body camera video and crime scene photos. We also visited the locations of the crimes to better understand each case.

As some of the killings were fairly recent and still raw for many of those close to the victims and the shooters, we worked for several weeks to secure interviews with family members and colleagues, in addition to legal and mental health experts who could best explain each case.

The Fallen team, from left: David Barer, Ben Friberg, Shannon Wolfson, Josh Hinkle

These killings also revealed some shortfalls in police protection. The State of Texas requires a minimum of 16 hours of crisis intervention training for every licensed peace officer, but we also learned additional, optional training is available for police to become certified Mental Health Officers. The 40-hour course can help police better respond to calls involving a mental health crisis, along with advanced de-escalation and diversion techniques.

We requested data from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and discovered just seven percent of the 77,000 peace officers in the state are certified Mental Health Officers. And only a quarter of the peace officers shot and killed by someone with mental illness since 2000 had that training. During the course of our investigation, Texas lawmakers proposed legislation to require all future law enforcement cadets to receive Mental Health Officer training.

Our investigation also revealed Texas has no statewide system for police agencies to share mental health information. Some of the cases we profiled showed police agencies not communicating such symptoms or risks to other departments. As a result, some of the officers who were killed were unaware their shooters had a history of mental illness – even though police in other agencies might have known.

While mental health groups, policy experts and law enforcement authorities agreed inter-agency communication regarding mental health was lacking, they also had concerns about such information becoming public or being used to adversely profile a subject. State lawmakers told us they wanted to look into the issue ahead of the next legislative session but also find a way to balance police protection and a person’s privacy.

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