July 27, 2008 in City

Parents speaking out on suicide

One year ago today, disturbed man leapt from Monroe bridge
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Susan Levy reflects on the day her son had a confrontation with police and jumped from the Monroe Street Bridge.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

When Joshua Levy jumped off the Monroe Street Bridge a year ago, a firefighter watching from a kayak in the Spokane River said the mentally ill young man frantically flapped his arms while falling feet-first to his death.

“He was desperately trying to fly,” Robert H. Trautmann said in a report.

Levy, a 28-year-old schizophrenic college student with a large and caring family, had flown off other bridges, landing in the frigid waters of Puget Sound and swimming to safety.

He’d been tackled and talked down from other suicide attempts and had been hospitalized five times since his 21st birthday.

But police had never before fired a Taser at him – a decision made in the town where he was born and where he’d returned only three days earlier to live with his father after being released from a mental hospital in Western Washington.

After reviewing Spokane Police Department records they’d requested last year but obtained only recently with the help of the Center for Justice, Levy’s family is speaking out about what they think went wrong – and what they hope to do about it.

His parents, David Breidenbach, of Spokane, and Susan Levy, of Bainbridge Island, also are working with Disability Rights Washington, in Seattle, a federally funded nonprofit investigating the death of their son.

They are asking these questions:

•Why was the severely mentally ill Levy released from Western State Hospital on July 24 without a confirmed plan for treatment by Spokane Mental Health?

•Why did Washington State Patrol officers who encountered Levy jumping in and out of traffic on Highway 195 near Hatch Road about 4 a.m. on July 26 not deliver him to Sacred Heart Medical Center – or at least inform his family of his erratic behavior?

•Why didn’t Police Department negotiators make more use of trained mental health advisers during the long standoff on the Monroe Street Bridge on July 26 and 27?

•Why, after Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick’s officers had promised the family they wouldn’t use force on Levy, did they deploy a Taser and rush his position – causing him to jump?

“It’s taken months to get the records. After reviewing them, we have so many questions,” said Levy, a former KREM-TV public affairs director who is now with a health consulting business on Bainbridge Island, in an interview last week.

The prologue

It’s unclear why Levy was released from Western State Hospital on July 24 with a two-week supply of medication to control his schizophrenia but without an appointment at Spokane Mental Health, which was supposed to continue his care under a formal agreement reached July 17 in Pierce County Superior Court.

The hospital “didn’t close the loop and make sure people in Spokane knew Josh was coming. They should have called on the day he was released,” said David Carlson, the lawyer from Disability Rights Washington investigating Levy’s death.

“We weren’t contacted by anybody” until the morning of July 27, said David H. Panken, CEO of Spokane Mental Health.

In a July 17 court declaration, Western State Hospital’s Dr. Edward Pierce said Levy could be kept stable if he took his medications reliably – but he wasn’t “intrinsically motivated” to do that.

Nonetheless, Pierce and Marylouise Jones, a Ph.D. mental health expert, said Levy “appears to have reached the maximum benefits of patient hospitalization.” They recommended his release to Breidenbach’s home in Spokane, with “screening upon arrival” at Spokane Mental Health.

Levy’s “less restrictive alternative” treatment agreement says the “Spokane Mental Health Center has agreed to assume responsibility including case management.” On July 12, Jim O’Hare, of Behavioral Health Care Options – a Las Vegas-based company that provides managed care to Spokane’s regional mental health network – signed a release form: “will accept consumer upon discharge.”

But Levy had no screening appointment set up when he arrived in Spokane late July 24 with his father, who had driven across the state to pick him up.

At 4:30 p.m. July 25, records show Western State Hospital’s Peter Bruce called Spokane Crisis Services, asking that Levy be seen as a walk-in. He also informed the Spokane agency that Levy had been discharged the day before.

In its response, the crisis agency said: “Spokane Mental Health has no knowledge of this case.”

Crisis Services called Levy at 4:40 p.m. and noted he “agreed to be called the following morning to come in for a walk-in.”

That 24-hour gap in care would prove critical on the evening of July 26, when Spokane Mental Health would tell police responding to the Monroe Street Bridge that they’d “never heard” of Levy.

On the evening of July 25, Breidenbach said his son left his South Hill house for a bike ride – and didn’t return home by bedtime.

Somewhere between High Drive and Hatch Road at Highway 195, Levy crashed his bike. About 3:40 a.m. July 26, troopers were told of several 911 calls reporting a “male jumping into traffic” on the highway.

Trooper J.A. McKee’s report said Levy admitted walking into traffic and said he was looking for the bike he’d crashed earlier. McKee said he refused to give Levy a ride to his father’s house because he felt he’d been uncooperative.

A second trooper offered to drive Levy to the house on West 22nd Avenue just after 4 a.m. – but didn’t ring the doorbell or inform Breidenbach that his son had been acting strangely in traffic.

Later that morning – about 10 hours before Levy would appear on the Monroe Street Bridge – father and son had breakfast together.

“He went to bed and I went to work, and that was the last I saw of him,” Breidenbach said.

At 4:15 p.m. that day, Spokane Crisis Response tried to call Levy at his father’s home.

“Wasn’t reached and no message was left,” the records say.

On the bridge

The standoff on the bridge began about 7:19 p.m. July 26 when Levy arrived with his bicycle and sat on the bridge rail with his feet dangling over.

Police cleared the bridge of traffic and closed Lincoln Street.

At 8:53 p.m., Levy was described by dispatchers as a white male with a Star of David tattooed on his right calf. At 10:15, he was identified as a “possible John Levy.”

Officer Daniel Waters, a trained Police Department hostage negotiator, said in his report that they’d tried early on to identify the man on the bridge. “Our local MHP (mental health provider) had no information on Levy,” he noted.

Police stayed on the bridge all night.

At 5:59 a.m. July 27, they learned Levy had met with a mental health counselor at Western State Hospital before arriving in Spokane and was provided with medication.

At 6:12 a.m., Spokane Mental Health “advises no record,” the police reports say. Western faxed information on Levy to Spokane Mental Health about an hour later, Panken said.

Susan Levy said she first learned of the incident when Spokane police called her about 7 a.m. – after her son had been on the bridge all night.

Police hadn’t yet called Breidenbach on the South Hill. Levy had to inform Breidenbach herself that their son was on the bridge.

Levy said she’d faced similar calls from police when her son jumped off the Agate Pass Bridge and the Warren Avenue Bridge in Western Washington.

Based on those encounters, Levy said she told Spokane police that although her son had jumped before, he wasn’t trying to kill himself. He just didn’t know how to de-escalate the crisis once it began.

“I told them he’s a very nice guy with a very bad disease,” she said. “I gave them Dave’s number. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t called him.”

Breidenbach said he went immediately to the bridge, but police refused to let him talk to his son.

“I basically was told to stand back, they didn’t want any family members to get close,” he said. “I wanted assurances no force would be used. They said, he’ll be allowed to determine his own fate.”

According to one report, the police rejected family contact with Levy “because his reaction to questions from negotiators was not positive.”

Kirkpatrick promised him that no force would be used and Levy would be allowed to “save face” by surrendering on his own, Breidenbach said.

He’s deeply angry that didn’t happen.

“Somewhere along the way, the rules got changed and we were playing a different game. We were totally kept out of the loop and were provided with no information,” he added.

Kirkpatrick said she didn’t speak to Breidenbach before Levy’s suicide, only afterward, and she didn’t make the decision to use the Taser. “That decision was made by the tactical people at the command post. It was their collective thinking,” Kirkpatrick said.

As the confrontation dragged on into the afternoon, Susan Levy said, she called Sacred Heart’s psychiatric unit. Her son had been hospitalized there and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when he was 21 after he stabbed himself in the neck.

“They said the fact that he’s up there so long is a very good sign he’s coming down. They assured us they’d have a really good doctor waiting for him at Sacred Heart,” she said.

During the bridge standoff, records show police made minimal use of mental health experts – for less than an hour during the 20-hour standoff. Spokane Mental Health offered the services of their assistant medical director, but police never called, Panken said.

Mental health experts generally aren’t used as negotiators for police in unsecured crises such as the bridge standoff, Panken added.

At 7:15 a.m. July 27, police asked Crisis Response Services for assistance for a “man threatening to jump” off the bridge.

At 7:30 a.m., Shelby Whitworth of the crisis agency went to the bridge and consulted with police, asking what role she could play. Whitworth knew Levy had jumped from two bridges and had just been released from Western State.

At 8:40 a.m., incident commander Lt. Judi Carl asked Whitworth whether they should use “confrontation” with Levy. Whitworth said she’d defer to police judgment and if they got him into custody, “she’d start proceedings to revoke” his release from Western.

“Police agreed there was not much more Spokane Mental Health could provide at this time,” the records say.

By noon July 27, the city negotiating team was replaced by county sheriff’s deputies because city police had been on the bridge all night.

By mid-morning, police had been warned there could be a “dramatic ending” – with Levy trying to take a police officer with him over the railing. That information came from a Poulsbo police negotiator who said Levy tried to jump off a bridge after a police officer grabbed him. Assisting officers pulled both men to safety.

Levy’s family thinks that information may have persuaded officers to try to use a Taser to end the standoff. Susan Levy said it was an exaggerated account of an earlier incident on the Agate Pass Bridge.

“He never tried to take anyone down,” she said. In a previous interview, Deputy Chief Mark Duncan, of the Bainbridge Island Police Department, also denied Levy was trying to pull an officer over the bridge, saying he was “just trying to lean back to jump.”

Spokane police came up with the Taser plan, according to the sheriff’s report. Officer Michael McCasland was assigned to shoot the older-style, X26 Taser with a maximum effective distance of 21 feet. Three officers hid behind a large cement pillar where Levy couldn’t see them.

When negotiators persuaded Levy after 3 p.m. to step down from his perch onto the bridge portico to urinate, McCasland fired the Taser. It missed.

A KREM-TV video shows the white streak of the Taser wire veering off over Levy’s left shoulder. Levy then hops back onto the ledge where he’d been perched for hours.

When he sees several officers running at him, he arises from his perch and jumps feet first off the bridge, landing on the rocks 130 feet below.

Firefighter Trautmann reached him first, confirming his death.

“Everyone was in shock that the male had jumped,” Officer McCasland’s report says.

Police officers should probably have deployed two Tasers in case one malfunctioned, said Carl, the incident commander.

“Was this a tragedy? You bet,” Carl added.

The aftermath

Immediately after Levy’s suicide, Kirkpatrick ordered her officers to her conference room, where they were told to write reports by July 30. They were given the rest of the day off.

In the conference room, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks announced there would be no Internal Affairs investigation.

On Oct. 2, Disability Rights Washington filed several records requests with the state for Levy’s medical history. It also asked the city of Spokane to provide its police records within 24 hours.

In its letter to the city, the center said it had probable cause to believe that Levy had been “abused or neglected.”

Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi responded on Oct. 31 that it would take “24 days, not hours” to provide the records. On Nov. 2, Treppiedi said the center still couldn’t have any records because the investigation into Levy’s death was still “open.”

Disability Rights asked the Center for Justice to intervene in the records battle. The center finally received the city records in late May and the Washington State Patrol records on July 16.

Disability Rights is reviewing the long-awaited Spokane records, Carlson said.

“We think there were systemic problems with the police and the mental health system, including communication problems,” Carlson added.

Panken agrees.

“If we’d known Josh was being released and could have had conversations with Western about his release conditions, we might have been able to intervene much earlier. We feel very badly about it,” Panken said.

As a result of police debriefings after Levy’s death, Kirkpatrick said she’d be more likely to deploy the department’s SWAT team rather than regular patrol officers in a future high-risk suicide standoff on a bridge. She said she wouldn’t rule out the use of Tasers – saying tactical decisions should be made in the field – but she’s giving her officers more training in mental health issues for the department’s crisis intervention teams. And Kirkpatrick said she’s keenly aware of the family’s “deep hurts” on the anniversary of their son’s death.

“Everyone is reflecting upon this incident,” she said.

This weekend, on the anniversary of Levy’s suicide, his parents, three siblings and other relatives are gathering on Bainbridge Island, where he’s buried in a woodland cemetery.

At The Unveiling, a Jewish mourning ritual, they’ll place a monument on Levy’s grave and share memories of his life. They’ve brought rocks from the Lochsa and other rivers he floated and from the other wild places he loved, including Alaska and Hurricane Ridge.

And they’ll remind themselves of how much he was loved.

“He had a future and a family. He had a horrible disease, but he was not alone. He was not a nameless, homeless person on the bridge that day,” Susan Levy said.

Levy and Breidenbach say they aren’t interested in a lawsuit, but in preventing future tragedies for the mentally ill.

“We have to make it better for other people, other families, so this doesn’t happen again,” Levy added.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or karend@spokesman. com.


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