South Hills SWAT Responds to Mental Health Crisis Call, Fatally Shoots Suspect


On Sunday, January 7, 2024, four members of the South Hills SWAT team, which is part of the greater Allegheny County Police Department, fatally shot a knife-wielding man who was having a mental health crisis. The incident has raised questions about police training and responses to mental health crisis calls, as well as what could be done to improve the safety and efficiency of such responses in the future.

Details of the Fatal South Hills SWAT Shooting

Christopher Shepherd was displaying clear signs of a mental health crisis that was turning aggressive, so his mother called Allegheny County health officials for help. Through the phone consultation, it was decided that Christopher would need to be involuntarily committed to receive mental health treatments.

Unexpectedly, no county mental health officials or social workers were sent to the scene with law enforcement. Instead, only SWAT team members from three different South Hills police departments arrived to apprehend Christopher. Possibly aggravated by the show of force, Christopher brandished a knife and locked himself inside his home. He reportedly attempted to strike an officer with the weapon when they attempted to enter a window that was boarded up with plywood.

After three hours of attempting to negotiate Christopher out of the home, he eventually emerged, still holding the knife. As he stepped off the porch and toward the officers, four of them opened fire, discharging an estimated 16 rounds and fatally shooting Christopher. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Could De-Escalation Have Worked?

Not long after the fatal police shooting of Christopher Shepherd, Allegheny County Councilman Dan Grzybek commented on how the incident put a spotlight on law enforcement responses to mental health crisis calls. He asked, “‘Were there ways to de-escalate?’ or ‘Was the officer the right person to send in?’”

For many observers, it seems clear that sending police officers unaccompanied by mental health crisis professionals was the wrong choice. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance, many law enforcement officers receive only 16 or 24 hours of mental health and de-escalation training. Some officers will be eligible for Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Training, but that training program is also only a 5-day, 40-hour curriculum.

Mental health crises present extremely complicated challenges that require in-depth insight into the patient’s mindset and welfare to understand. It is not far-fetched to argue that 16 to 40 hours of training is not enough to give an officer the knowledge they need to sufficiently understand and de-escalate a suspect’s mental health crisis before the situation turns violent.

Attorney Chad Shannon Voices His Concern & Weighs In

Attorney Chad Shannon of Friday & Cox in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, went to high school with Christopher Shepherd. When he heard of his tragic passing in a police shooting and how it was entangled with questions about police responses to mental health crisis calls, he felt it was his civic duty to speak up.

The week of Christopher’s death, he contacted Allegheny County Representative Sara Innamorato to express his concerns about what happened and what should be changed to prevent such tragedies in the future. He asked about alternative ways to disarm and detain a suspect who is not wielding a firearm, why mental health experts only consulted the situation over the phone rather than in person, how it could be determined that firing 16 or more rounds was a response reflective of the threat, and other important questions.

Attorney Shannon, as a concerned citizen and resident of Allegheny County, raises additional issues, such as:

  • Will the investigations into the fatal shooting be made entirely transparent to the public?
  • Is non-lethal methods training required of SWAT team members? If not, will it be?
  • What is the plan to increase the budget for mental health crisis response training for law enforcement officers in Allegheny County?
  • Are mental health experts deployed with SWAT team members whenever possible and needed? If not, when will this practice start?
  • Should a community review board of SWAT team responses to mental health crisis calls be created?

How many of Attorney Shannon’s recommendations will be taken to heart and brought to the public’s attention in community meetings and town hall gatherings is yet to be seen. In the meantime, anyone who shares his concern about how the police responded to a man in a mental health crisis should also reach out to their local representatives. You can click here to access the Pennsylvania General Assembly “Find Your Legislator” tool.

Civil Rights Lawsuits After Fatal Police Shootings

At Friday & Cox in Pittsburgh, we are proud to stand with our communities in the face of police brutality and other civil rights violations. If you lost a loved one to a fatal police shooting that reasonably should have been avoided with better training and crisis response techniques, you might have the grounds to file a civil rights lawsuit against the federal, state, and/or local government. It would be our honor to help you understand your rights and explore your legal options to seek justice for the memory of your loved one.

We serve clients in Western Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia. Call us at (412) 900-8250 if you’d like a free and confidential case consultation about civil rights lawsuits.