Thursday, May 5, 2016

Spokane cops want more mental health services after officer-involved shootings

Posted By on Thu, May 5, 2016 at 12:29 PM

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is frustrated. For about 10 years now, he's harped on the lack of resources for people who struggle with mental illness but don't get treatment. They fall through the cracks, he says, and often the ones there to catch them are officers on the street. 

"You can provide all the CIT training in the world," Knezovich says referring to crisis intervention training for law enforcement. "On the street, when you're dealing with these types of situations, it never goes well. The street is not the place for mental health treatment." 

Spokane Police Law Enforcement Director Jim McDevitt echoed Knezovich's frustration, pointing to the three officer-involved shootings within the past week. The victims in each of those incidents had run into the mental health system at some point, he says. 

"Our officers are not social workers, they're not mental health workers," McDevitt says. 

One of the three victims, Michael S. Kurtz, died at the scene. He was shot April 28 by officers in front of the House of Charity. A second victim, Charleston D. Harper, was shot outside a downtown bar hours before the Bloomsday race. The third victim, Aaron Johnson, was shot at the West Wynn Motel. Johnson was also shot several times by Spokane police in 2014. Both he and Harper are reportedly in stable condition. 

The Spokane County Sheriff's Office will review each of the three incidents to determine whether the use of force by Spokane police was justified. 

For Knezovich, the problem is a lack of facilities for mental health treatment driven by a lack of funding. 

"I don't hold our partners within the [mental health] system accountable for this, I hold our state government responsible," he tells a room of reporters. "It is time the state government takes mental health seriously. You can't keep trying to push all the problems onto the street level and onto local governments. We're not geared to deal with that." 

The result, he says, is that about 85 percent of the Spokane County Jail population has some kind of mental illness "because there aren't enough mental health beds in the area." 

But it appears help might be on the way. 

In 2015, the legislature approved $40.5 million in the state's biennial budget, in part, to increase the number of beds and employees at the two state-run psychiatric hospitals. 

Additionally, earlier this year, the state approved a new $37 million psychiatric facility to be built in Spokane, which will add a total of 72 more beds. 

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About The Author

Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.