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Psychological trauma keeping deputy from job

Fri., Jan. 3, 2014, midnight

Psychological trauma suffered by a Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputy may prevent him from ever returning to work, his doctors recently told the county.

The deputy, Eric Johnson, was one of the first on scene after a fugitive gunned down two fellow deputies in north Spokane in June 2012 and he stood guard with a rifle over their bleeding bodies. He took medical leave two months later.

Doctors told county officials Johnson is not ready to go back to work now and he “may never be,” said Undersheriff Jeff Tower.

Johnson was officially notified late last year that he’d be fired if he didn’t return to work or offer reasons beyond the psychological trauma for why he couldn’t resume duty.

“All the information we were getting back from his doctors is they don’t know if he’d ever be able to perform the essential duties of a deputy sheriff,” Tower said. “That leaves us in an awkward spot. We have to make a determination. We can’t leave the position open forever.”

Tower added, “You hate to part ways under these types of circumstances. Eric has been a good employee.”

Johnson has worked at the Sheriff’s Office since March 1996. A decision on his employment is expected after Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich returns next week.

Johnson did not respond to a request for an interview.

Four sheriff’s deputies went on medical leave after fugitive Charles Wallace sprayed deputies Mike Northway and Matt Spink with bullets during a traffic stop along U.S. Highway 2 in north Spokane. Wallace killed himself following a car chase that ended in Deer Park.

Johnson and Deputy Jeff Bergeron took leave after experiencing psychological trauma. Northway and Spink suffered mentally as well as physically.

Spink returned to light duty in November. Bergeron started working four hours per day last month.

Northway – hit by four bullets – is still recovering. Doctors indicate he’s progressing steadily, Tower said.

“There isn’t a cookie cutter way we can determine which officers will go back,” said Mary Dietzen, a local psychologist who has treated many law enforcement officers, including Northway and Spink.

Variables that can influence whether an officer returns to work after a traumatic event include previous experiences on the job or family issues.

“Some officers are never ready to go back,” Dietzen said. “When I get those officers in my office, and I do, we look at their skills and what other job might work for them.”

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