comScore

Travis Jordan's family says cops turned his depression into a death sentence

Travis Jordan's friends and family. Left to right: Paul Johnson, Allison Reinke, Sophia Jones, Taren Vang, Flo Ching, Malia Gahler Nzara.

Travis Jordan's friends and family. Left to right: Paul Johnson, Allison Reinke, Sophia Jones, Taren Vang, Flo Ching, Malia Gahler Nzara. City Pages

Travis Jordan was having a bad day.

It was Friday, November 9, 2018. In north Minneapolis, the 36-year-old Jordan was alone in his house, beginning a dangerous spiral into the worst depressive episode of his life.

Jordan wouldn’t survive to see November 10, and reports about his death in the weeks that followed would make it seem inevitable—a dangerous, broken man who decided to commit suicide at the hands of the police. Until George Floyd’s death, his was another name on a long list of dead Black, brown, and Indigenous men killed by Minnesota officers who claimed they felt too threatened by their encounters to use anything but deadly force.

But since the police abolition movement erupted in Minneapolis this spring, the people who loved Jordan have been working tirelessly to shift his legacy from perpetrator to victim.

After all, the eight bullets fired at him came from the barrel of a gun in another man’s hand. Is that a suicide?

His family doesn’t think so.

Travis Jordan

Travis Jordan Courtesy of the family

***

A native of Hawaii, Jordan had been living on the same north Minneapolis block since 2011, when he packed up his island life and moved to be closer to his mother and cousin and aunt in the bitter, blustering cold of the north. Once a talented surfer, he was left with chronic pain and an addiction to OxyContin after an accident on the water. During those first few months in the snow, Jordan decided to quit Oxy cold turkey. His mother and aunt cared for him around the clock as the withdrawal made him sweat, shake, vomit, and cry. His cousin Malia Gahler Nzara said it was one of the most horrific things they’d ever witnessed, but he made it through that fight, emerging clean and with a renewed purpose. He never went back to Oxy.

Jordan grew up in the restaurant industry. His mother, Flo Ching, raised him and his brother on her own. She worked at a resort on Oahu, and when Jordan was a child, her co-workers were like a second family to him. A bright, artistic child, he excelled in elementary and middle school and made friends easily. He loved to paint and draw and had a knack for graffiti designs, getting in trouble a few times in high school for tagging elaborate, colorful murals on various buildings around town. He adored animals, often sneaking pets into the house under his mother’s nose and doting on them secretly.

After graduating from high school, Jordan worked his way up from busboy to mixologist and sommelier. He continued this work in Minneapolis, taking jobs at The Exchange nightclub and The Union, where he met his roommate, Paul Johnson. His warm demeanor made him a favorite of customers, and he was generous with the money he made, buying groceries for friends, catering other people’s parties on his own dime. Every time he passed a panhandler, he’d empty his wallet and ask what else they needed.

In 2016, then 26-year-old Taren Vang and a friend sat down at Jordan’s bar after a night of clubbing. He was instantly entranced by Vang, and for the next two years they embarked on a casual flirtation—long conversations over the bar on weekends and “free” drinks that, she later found out, he was paying for out of his own pocket. She gave him her number and they texted on and off. In early 2018, she got a call from Jordan. He asked her if she wanted a cat.

“A cat?” she said, incredulous.

A scrawny orange tabby had followed him home from work, and he was looking to find it a good home. Vang wasn’t up for a cat, but she was intrigued by his altruism.

That February, Jordan called again, this time to ask Vang out. He meticulously planned every moment of their first date, taking her to Manny’s and showering her with compliments. After three more successful dates, he asked Vang to be his girlfriend.

The two quickly fell into a comfortable, cozy, homebody routine. Save for the two weeks Vang spent on vacation in Europe over the summer of 2018, they saw each other every day. On weekends, Vang would sleep late and wake up to elaborate breakfast creations waiting for her in the kitchen. They cooked dinner together, cuddled with his roommates’ three cats and 13-year-old, half-paralyzed basset hound, who Jordan fawned over—waking up every morning to help her, spending hours next to her on the floor making her sure she felt loved and special at the end of her life.

While things were good between them, Vang began to notice a persistent sadness beneath Jordan’s upbeat exterior. Jordan had been diagnosed as bipolar and had tried medication a few times. But he didn’t like the way it made him feel, so for the past few years, he had been managing his mental health on his own. Like so many suffering from clinical depression and bipolar disorder, he hid his pain behind humor and substances. He often drank to excess, becoming sad, angry, and, at times, belligerent.

Jordan’s roommate Johnson had also been diagnosed as bipolar, and when Jordan moved in with him in May, 2018, was also in the process of quitting alcohol.

“I understand all too well how difficult it can be to deal with mental illness and addiction at the same time,” said Johnson, “so there were things I was trying to have for Travis in this house that would keep him safe from himself, provide him shelter from the world.”

Johnson and his wife, Allison Reinke, banned drinking at the house, and did their best to make themselves available for Jordan whenever he needed support. And while Vang says the drinking got better, the sadness remained. Some days Jordan couldn’t eat, drink, or get out of bed, lost in his own interior pain. On days like that, Vang would drive over with a plate of food, sit him up in bed, and feed him like a child.

“You’re so sad but you love me so much,” she would think. “I can go through this with you. I can help you. We can do this together.”

***

Gabriel Black Elk of the group Native Lives Matter. His brother, Paul Castaway was killed by Denver police in 2015 during a schizophrenic episode. "They knew they were there on a mental health call, but they still chased my brother down, shot and killed him in front of three adults and 18 kids. His last words were: 'what is wrong with you guys?'"

Gabriel Black Elk of the group Native Lives Matter. His brother, Paul Castaway was killed by Denver police in 2015 during a schizophrenic episode. "They knew they were there on a mental health call, but they still chased my brother down, shot and killed him in front of three adults and 18 kids. His last words were: 'what is wrong with you guys?'"

In the months leading up to November 9, Jordan was in and out of the hospital with severe pancreatitis, a condition often caused or exacerbated by alcohol abuse. While in the hospital, he developed a blood clot that required near-constant medical surveillance. Vang would go with him to doctors appointments and sit with him while he underwent painful tests.

Johnson and Vang say the stress of Jordan’s medical problems took a toll on his mental health, making his depression worse than ever. On November 8, after one such appointment, Vang alternated putting hot and cold packs on Jordan’s aching body until he suggested she head home. She reminded him of their plans for the weekend: Her family was having a celebration for the Hmong New Year, and Vang had purchased matching outfits for them to wear to the party.

“He was really excited about that,” she said. “Family meant everything to him.”

But the next afternoon, Jordan began sending Vang concerning text messages. A music video containing graphic depictions of suicide, a goodbye note. He wasn’t making sense, and he wouldn’t listen to reason. He wanted to die, he said.

At the time, Vang was taking care of her mother, who she couldn’t leave unattended. Desperate, she called Johnson and Nzara, who lived across the street, but both were at work. A social worker Vang knew suggested she call the non-emergency police line.

“They will be able to get there faster than we can,” said her friend.

Vang took the advice. She called 311 and told them her boyfriend was threatening suicide, but was directed to 911. A few minutes later, her father arrived to watch her mother and Vang jumped in her car, speeding from East St. Paul to Jordan’s home in Minneapolis.

Amity Dimock and her husband, Encarnacion Garcia. Dimock's 21-year-old son, Kobe Heisler, was killed by Brooklyn Center police last year.

Amity Dimock and her husband, Encarnacion Garcia. Dimock's 21-year-old son, Kobe Heisler, was killed by Brooklyn Center police last year.

***

In 2017, Minneapolis’s Third and Fifth Police Precincts embarked upon a “co-responder” pilot program for mental health calls. The program paired licensed social workers with officers to respond to all 911 calls relating to a mental health episode. While most police departments label calls for assault, domestic abuse, gunshots, and people in mental health crises as “Priority 1” calls that require an armed police response, Minneapolis precincts with co-responder programs take mental health out of the mix. Instead, these are flagged in the system as calls from or for “Emotionally Disturbed Persons,” or EDPs.

The social worker, who is unarmed and well-versed in deescalation tactics, is the primary point of contact for the EDP. The officer, though armed, is dressed in plain clothes and follows the lead of their partner. The pair asks gentle questions, supporting the person in distress and often enlisting the help of friends, family members, or other trusted figures to get them whatever help they need. The vast majority of EDP calls relate to suicidal ideation.

According to data provided to MinnPost from the Minneapolis Police Department, between the fall of 2017 and the fall of 2018, co-responders handled 985 EDP calls in the Third and Fifth Precincts. Of those, 264 people were calmed down by the social worker at the scene, and were able to stay at their home or workplace. Another 189 were safely transported to a hospital or mental health facility, and 198 required no assistance or were gone before co-responders showed up. There were no arrests made, and no police-involved shootings or deaths in any of those cases.

A 2015 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement, and that one in four victims of fatal police violence were dealing with mental illness.

“We expect our police officers to wear too many hats and to be professionals and experts in areas where they weren’t trained to be,” says Amity Dimock, whose 21-year-old autistic son, Kobe Dimock-Heisler, was shot and killed by Brooklyn Center police in 2019 after he threatened to hurt himself. He lived with his grandparents, who initially called 911 for assistance but were able to calm him down on their own. Although Dimock says Kobe’s grandfather called back to say police were no longer needed, they came anyway, and as a result, Dimock-Heisler’s life was taken.

While she says co-responder programs are “better than nothing,” Dimock believes any police presence on the scene of a mental health crisis is a recipe for disaster.

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile, who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016. "I don’t know why it’s taken four years for this to happen. I feel like people are fed up, people are tired, people want answers. Someone needs to be held accountable."

Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile, who was killed by a St. Anthony police officer in 2016. "I don’t know why it’s taken four years for this to happen. I feel like people are fed up, people are tired, people want answers. Someone needs to be held accountable."

“In a mental health crisis or addiction situation, I don’t think it should be armed police officers who respond,” she said. “It should be a trained mental health professional. Police should be reserved for violent crimes. I am positive my son would be alive if that had been who responded.”

Creating a separate, unarmed crisis response team specifically for mental health calls has been a success in many places around the country and world, including Stockholm, Sweden; Oakland, California; and Eugene, Oregon, where for years, a group called CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Street) has been responding to all EDP calls in the area. In 2019, CAHOOTS workers, not armed police, responded to 24,000 mental health crises in Eugene, about 20 percent of all calls to 911 that year.

Unfortunately for Jordan, who lived in north Minneapolis’s Fourth Precinct, the city’s co-responder program had yet to be implemented in his area.

Vang goes back to the moment she made the call all the time in her head.

“I expected an ambulance to come and convince him to get treatment at the hospital,” she said. “I thought someone could come to save his life, calm him down and take him somewhere safe where he could get into a better frame of mind. I thought they would send someone who could help him come back to his senses.”

***

You can watch the bodycam footage of Jordan’s encounter with MPD Officers Ryan Keyes and Neal Walsh, who responded to Vang’s call, on YouTube. At the time, Keyes and Walsh were rookie cops, on the force less than 11 months each.

Matilda Smith, holds a photo of her son, Jaffort Smith, who was shot by four St. Paul police officers in 2016. "I almost died from that. After they killed him, they demonized him."

Matilda Smith, holds a photo of her son, Jaffort Smith, who was shot by four St. Paul police officers in 2016. "I almost died from that. After they killed him, they demonized him."

The footage starts in the car. Keyes is driving, and the two pull up to Jordan’s home just after 2 p.m. They get out of the car, walking gingerly over the crunchy white layer of snow covering Jordan’s yard, and knock on his front door. No one answers, so they walk to the back yard and peer into a window. Jordan is in the kitchen. They knock, asking him to come outside, then walk back to the front porch to see if he’ll comply. He doesn’t. With the winter wind whistling through the side yard, Keyes walks back to the kitchen window and knocks again.

Jordan opens the window and yells out: “What?”

“Can you come to the front door?”

“Fuck you,” Jordan says, his voice cracking with emotion.

“What’s your name?” asks Officer Keyes.

“It doesn’t fucking matter,” Jordan cries. “Fuck you. Fuck both you motherfuckers.”

He shuts the window.

Malia Montgomery, whose father, Lionel Lewis, was beaten to death by police in Hibbing, Minnesota in 2002, when she was just three years old. "This fight has been my whole life. I recently got arrested at the protest for George Floyd on a curfew violation. I was wearing this shirt, and the national guard asked if I wanted to be killed the same way they killed my dad."

Malia Montgomery, whose father, Lionel Lewis, was beaten to death by police in Hibbing, Minnesota in 2002, when she was just three years old. "This fight has been my whole life. I recently got arrested at the protest for George Floyd on a curfew violation. I was wearing this shirt, and the national guard asked if I wanted to be killed the same way they killed my dad."

“Well, that’s him,” says Officer Keyes to Officer Walsh, who suggests they call for backup.

A neighbor stops to see what’s happening, and they ask him whether there is a dog in the house. The neighbor says yes, there’s a dog, maybe two? One is massive and very old, he says.

The cops stand around aimlessly for a few moments, until Jordan appears in the window on the screened-in front porch.

“Let’s do this,” he screams out the front door. “For real, let’s do this!”

“Come here dude.”

“Let’s do this!” Jordan sobs.

Through the window, the officers notice a kitchen knife in Jordan’s hand.

“He’s got a knife dude, he’s got a knife.”

With Jordan still inside on the porch, the officers draw their guns.

“Let’s do this!” he screams again.

The officers back up, their guns pointed at Jordan’s figure in the door.

“Put the knife down. Drop the knife dude. Drop the knife.”

“FUCK YOU. Come on!!! Let’s do this.”

“Drop the knife dude, I do not want to do this.”

“COME ON,” screams Jordan, his voice hoarse and raw. “FUCKING DO IT.”

Still holding the knife, Jordan stumbles out the front door. He takes four, maybe five, steps toward them before both officers open fire. Eight shots in quick succession. The noise reverberates around the deserted winter street. Jordan crumbles as the bullets hit his chest, and the officers run over to him as he lies moaning on the sidewalk. They roughly throw him onto his stomach and handcuff him as blood seeps out of his midsection onto the snowy ground.

“I’m sorry,” he cries. “I’m sorry.”

***

Jordan was already dead by the time Vang pulled up to the block, now swarming with police activity.

Shaking, Vang parked and identified herself, and was immediately shuttled into the back of a police car next to Johnson, who had arrived a few minutes prior. The two sat together for hours, pleading with the police on the scene to tell them what happened.

“There was one cop in the car with us, but he wouldn’t give us any information,” said Vang. “He kept telling us he didn’t know and trying to make small talk with Paul about his business. So we sat there looking online for anything, refreshing the front page of all the big news outlets over and over, hoping to see that he was OK.”

When Nzara arrived, police wouldn’t allow her to cross their tape to get into her home, which sat kitty-corner from Johnson and Jordan’s. She asked why there were so many police on the scene.

“They told me the reason there was such a large police presence was because there had been so many calls involving him in the past,” said Nzara. “That was not true at all. When I asked if he was still alive, they told me he was still in the house being talked down. That wasn’t true either. He was already dead at the hospital.”

After several hours in the back of the car, Johnson and Vang were asked to come to the station, where they were separated and subjected to a long interview process with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which investigates police-involved deaths.

Jordan had now been dead for nearly six hours. Johnson and Vang still didn’t know. Instead, they say the BCA agents asked them pointed questions: Wasn’t he disturbed? Wasn’t he violent? Didn’t he want to die at the hands of the police?

“I caught on right away,” said Johnson. “They were trying to coax out of me a narrative that fit the story they wanted to tell. Trying to paint a picture of someone who was a problem, not someone who needed help. I wouldn’t give that to them. Because it wasn’t true.”

Not until the interviews concluded was either party informed of Jordan’s death. Wracked with grief, they left the station nearly 12 hours after the shooting, and drove in numb silence to Nzara’s, where Jordan’s mother, aunt, and uncle were waiting.

On July 12, 2020, Vang, Johnson, Reinke, Nzara, and other members of Jordan’s friends and family marched down University Avenue in St. Paul, with more than 100 families from around the country who also lost loved ones to police violence. Wearing masks and shirts depicting Jordan’s name and face, they led a block-long swarm of protesters who came in support of the National Mother’s March Against Police Violence.

The march, along with a healing workshop for families that took place at a church in Bloomington the day before, was organized primarily by Ashley Quinones and Toshira Garraway, who lead the Justice Squad and Families Supporting Families Against Police Violence (FSFAPV), respectively. Quinones and Garraway lost their partners to police violence 10 years apart, and have been fighting together for justice since Quinones’s husband, Brian Quinones, was killed by Richfield police last year.

With the help of the community, Quinones and Garraway raised enough money to fly out families from around the country to join their Mother’s March weekend.

In attendance were family members of Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Aubrey, George Floyd, and other victims of police killings. Sandy Guardiola from New York, killed in her bed during a wellness check. Atatiana Jefferson from Texas, shot through the window of her house while babysitting her young nephew. Maricio Barron, shot by police after being hit by a car on the freeway in Irvine, California. Jonathon Tubby from Wisconsin, shot while sitting handcuffed in the back of a cop car.

George Washington Senior. Eric Rivera. Vincent Velasquez. Dale Graham. Lionel Antione Lewis. Tyrone West. Paul Castaway. So many different names with the same story: an unjust death, an evasive response from police, a push for answers, a tangled web of lies. As the protesters chanted as they marched to the State capitol, for these families, there is “no justice, no peace.”

Since Jordan’s death, this community has been a lifeline for Vang. Gabriel Black Elk from the group Native Lives Matter reached out to her just days after Jordan was killed. While she was never an activist, after Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that no charges would be filed in Jordan’s death she began to attend protests and vigils for other victims of police violence. While things went on pause for a few months when the pandemic began in March, the movement was electrified by the death of George Floyd.

At a protest outside of Freeman’s home on May 27, Vang spoke publicly about Jordan in front of a crowd of hundreds. Today, her Google calendar is packed with several community events every week: a vigil, a protest, a Zoom appointment with Gov. Tim Walz.

Vang’s compatriots in Justice Squad and FSFAPV are calling for all cases of police-involved killings in the United States to be reopened and reexamined, and they have the attention of some powerful allies. In a meeting at the Minneapolis Club with Attorney General Keith Ellison on Tuesday, July 14, Vang, Quinones, Garraway, and several other mothers, wives, stepfathers, daughters, and cousins of those who were killed by Minnesota police officers spoke at length about their struggle for justice.

Ellison listened carefully, responding with empathy, self-deprecating humor, and helpful legal advice. Though the activism of this community has resulted in eight bills regarding police reform being pushed through the Minnesota House of Representatives, several key measures have stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“That’s unfortunate, because it’s good policy that would help everybody, and ultimately make our system more transparent and more accountable,” said Johnathon McClellan, a criminal justice reform activist, law student, and former firefighter and elected delegate for Bernie Sanders who helped to draft the bills now being stonewalled. If passed, the bills would ensure families get access to unredacted bodycam footage within 48 hours of a police critical incident, mandate that officers be trained in recognizing and responding to individuals on the autism spectrum, end the three-year statute of limitations for wrongful death suits, end no-knock warrants, and establish a statewide co-responder program for EDP calls.

“[The Republicans] haven’t talked to these families, they’re trying to pacify their base, said McClellan. “But after the death of George Floyd, Minnesota is ground zero for this uprising. The fact that other states around the country are passing legislation in response to this but Minnesota has not is a disgrace of the utmost. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

If these bills had been law on that overcast November day in 2018, would Jordan still be alive? Would the presence of a trained social worker have been enough to break him out of his own mind? The people who love him will never know for sure, but they think it’s a question worth asking.

“When I watch the video, all I can think is: Why did they do that? What are they doing? To me, they did 72 things wrong,” said Nzara.

“Minnesota has no death penalty, so why was he killed for being sad?” asks Johnson. “I could go out and murder a hundred people in Minnesota, and I couldn’t be sentenced to death. Yet continually, the police are being put in charge of people’s lives. And when people like Travis are experiencing the worst day of their life, when the police show up without training, without empathy for the neighborhood and communities they serve, they are only there to make it worse.”