Many questions to answer in the investigation of Henley shooting

Sep 21, 2020

A lot has happened in the week since Willie Henley, 60, was shot by a Buffalo Police officer during a mental health crisis call for help. And a lot more has to happen, according to the many voices who have spoken out about the shooting.


Crisis Services CEO Jessica Pirro told WBFO she will be an integral part of the investigation because Crisis Services is Erie County's designated mental health responder in these types of police cases, as well as the agency that trains police Crisis Intervention Teams.

Pirro said from what she knows now, lethal force should not have been used.

"We know that there could have been a different outcome here, just based on what we're seeing on the video and also knowing that this is a gentleman with a history of mental illness. It's not a criminal call. Why did it escalate to that point that weapons had to be drawn? That's really where our concern is," Pirro said.

Pirro said a CIT officer was on site during the Henley call, but something went wrong.

"The goal is, from a CIT model, that you're shifting your mindset as a police officer, from responding to a criminal call, to a law and order call, if you will, as they're trained to do, to responding to a mental health call. It requires you to respond in a very different approach," Pirro said.

Pirro said some 600 law enforcement officers have been trained as Crisis Intervention Teams over the last five years, including 130 Buffalo Police officers.

A protester in MLK Park Sunday wears a shirt with Willie Henley's picture.
Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Family members have said they called police to help keep the peace during yet another mental health crisis for Henley, not for him to be shot. Pirro said Henley should not have been shot.

She also has questions about the new program announced by City Hall to bring in social workers on police calls.

"The Behavioral Health Unit that they announced on Monday does have a partnership with another organization, Endeavor, to have social workers that are stationed within the unit to work with those officers. So there is another layer of service that has been brought in," Pirro said. "We want more partners. We need more people involved and we appreciate that, but it has to be done in a collaborative spirit so that these emergency situations don't get hiccups because there's more people involved in the response."

On Thursday, a group of social workers from Western New York Agents of Change voiced their opposition to the program, saying police and social workers do things differently and won't be able to work together. The Common Council said earlier in the week that the unit did not go far enough.

Protesters have been calling for the resignation of the Buffalo Police commissioner, the mayor and the Erie County district attorney, who is prosecuting weapons and assault charges against Henley.

Pirro said she has been working on a different pilot program that would take action when a 911 call first comes in.

"I think in this situation, we don't know how the call came in. We don't know what was presented as the behaviors that resulted in the police being dispatched to begin with," she said. "Those are things that we would like to help evaluate with the department to see if there's points either in the process that obviously could have been improved to prevent lethal force from being used, or is it other training needs that we really need to evaluate."

The pilot program has yet to start, but it would train 911 dispatchers to decide when mental health professionals could respond instead of police. Pirro said the community has been calling for less police involvement in mental health cases and this so-called 911 diversion program has proven effective in other areas of the country.