OLYMPIA – Six months after Sheena Henderson was shot and killed by her estranged husband at Deaconess Hospital, her father is urging state lawmakers to pass a bill that he believes could save others from the same fate.
“Sheena’s Law” would enable law enforcement officers to get mental health experts involved more quickly in instances where they have concerns about someone who falls short of the legal threshold for being taken into protective custody. Supporters say it might have led to treatment for Sheena’s husband, Chris Henderson, who also fatally shot himself on July 8.
“Mental illness can affect anyone, at any time,” said state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, who introduced the bill Wednesday. “The proposed legislation would really be about giving officers another tool in the toolbox.”
Currently, police can detain people who present clear physical threats to themselves or others. But officers need evidence. Chris Henderson was evaluated as a suicide risk less than 24 hours before the tragedy on the hospital’s campus, but he insisted he was not a threat and deputies didn’t feel they had enough evidence to detain him.
“I can almost guarantee that they’re sitting there questioning themselves, ‘Should I have done more?’ ” said Sheena’s father, Gary Kennison, regarding the Spokane County sheriff’s deputies who evaluated his son-in-law.
Under Sheena’s Law, officers could alert mental health professionals when someone raises safety concerns but doesn’t meet the criteria for detainment. Those professionals could then determine whether the person is a threat and whether he or she needs involuntary treatment.
The bill would require law enforcement officers to mention a suspected mental health crisis in an incident report. Agencies would have 12 hours to send those reports to designated local health care facilities, which would have another 12 hours to attempt to contact the person raising safety concerns.
It’s a simple premise, Riccelli said: Psychiatrists, not law enforcement officers, should respond to mental health crises.
Companion bill on gun returns
A second bill, also named for Sheena Henderson, addresses another aspect of the shooting: the gun.
Three hours after deputies cleared him as a suicide risk, Chris Henderson retrieved a gun from Spokane police that had been confiscated in May during an earlier suicide attempt. He went to the hospital, where his wife was working, the next day. The proposed law would have prevented Henderson from retrieving his gun for at least 72 hours.
“This would provide a brief cooling-off period,” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, the bill’s prime sponsor.
The 72 hours would start from the time a gun owner requests a gun back. During that time, the law enforcement agency would have to notify any family or household members who want to know about the return – by phone, email or text message. They would need a case number or incident description to request notifications.
The bill would not change who is eligible to retrieve confiscated guns. Gun owners are ineligible if they have received involuntary mental health treatment. Chris Henderson had not.
But the notification system might have helped Henderson’s family seek treatment before it was too late, Billig said. “They took comfort in knowing that he didn’t have his gun.”
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he supports both proposals but warned the department lacks the money to take on additional state requirements and that it should include funding for local agencies.
“This cannot be an unfunded mandate from the state,” Knezovich said.
Laws seek to find beds, fund treatment
Lawmakers face pressure from state and federal court rulings to pay to increase the number of beds and improve treatment for Washington’s mentally ill. The alternative, judges observed, is to continue jailing suspects while they wait for space to open up at one of the state’s two psychiatric hospitals.
A recent report by Mental Health America, a national advocacy group, ranked Washington 48th in the country for its high prevalence of mental illness and limited access to care, below Oregon at No. 40 and Idaho at No. 42.
A strained budget is usually blamed, but lawmakers have responded this year with about a dozen bills that would channel more money into mental health care. They cite tragedies that have resulted from poor access to care across the state.
For Sheena Henderson’s friend in Olympia, Kristen Otoupalik, the question is simple: “How can anyone put a dollar amount on Chris and Sheena’s lives – on anyone’s life?”
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