Aaron D. Johnson was released from Eastern Washington’s mental hospital despite his parents’ desire for him to have long-term care and the opinions of at least some professionals that he posed a threat.
Why Johnson was released, or even when, is unclear. State officials say federal health privacy laws prevent them from providing details of his care. But on May 2, less than a year after he was scheduled to leave Eastern State Hospital, he allegedly pointed a fake gun at police and was shot by an officer multiple times.
It was the third time in five days that a recent mental hospital patient was shot by Spokane police, leading law enforcement officials to publicly call on state leaders to improve care for those who have serious mental illnesses.
It was also the second time Johnson had been shot by police.
Treatment versus rights
Johnson is back in a Spokane County Jail cell, facing another charge of assaulting a police officer.
The 32-year-old, who twice has been shot by Spokane police responding to 911 calls, had been asking the courts to release him from mental health treatment, according to records that were mailed to his family but remain sealed under privacy laws.
“He was fighting it,” Sharon Johnson, Aaron’s mother, said. Though he initially lost that fight in court, he eventually was released.
Those familiar with Johnson’s case contacted for this story either did not return calls or declined to speak specifically about him, citing privacy laws.
Johnson’s most recent assault case stems from an incident outside the West Wynn Motel on May 2. Surveillance cameras recorded a man, whom Sharon Johnson identified as her son, pointing what appears to be a gun in the direction of a police officer off-screen. The man falls to the ground seconds later, obscured by a waist-high wall.
In an affidavit filed in support of Johnson’s arrest, Detective Andrew Buell of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office said Shane Phillips was the Spokane police officer who fired at Johnson. Nine bullet casings were found at the scene, as well as a “BB gun, designed as a replica of a real firearm” and a handwritten note on a piece of cardboard in Johnson’s room, “Which stated the type of music Johnson wanted played at his funeral and it was addressed to his mother,” charging documents stated.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Jim McDevitt, Spokane’s law enforcement director, said in a joint news conference last week that Johnson’s shooting was one more example of the need for state legislators to prioritize funding for mental health care.
“They’re pushing people that should really be in an institution onto the streets,” Knezovich said. “That’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
An order committing a person found to be mentally incapable of taking care of themselves, under Washington law, is a temporary finding that attempts to balance a person’s civil liberty with protecting the community. Hospital stays are limited to three or six months unless a treating physician petitions the court to continue commitment.
How Johnson returned to the streets baffles his family, but it reflects the tenuous tug of war that results in situations, like last week’s shooting, that occur when the need for mental health treatment clashes with a person’s legal rights.
A finding of grave disability
After Johnson was shot wielding a knife outside the Truth Ministries shelter in January 2014, he was treated medically at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and spent time in the hospital’s psychiatric ward.
Court records show he was moved back to Spokane County Jail that spring. On June 29, 2014, he was again ordered to the psychiatric wing of Sacred Heart because he would not take prescribed medications while jailed.
In October 2014, doctors at Eastern State Hospital petitioned for Johnson to complete a six-month involuntary stay, testifying that he was schizophrenic and experienced “paranoid and grandiose” delusions, including a belief that the government was out to get him. It was the fourth time Johnson had been admitted to the institution.
Johnson asked that a jury decide if he should be civilly committed under state law. Jurors were to decide if he was “gravely disabled,” meaning he posed a risk of physical harm to himself or others, or if he showed an incapacity to care for himself.
Richard Mathisen, an attorney with the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office who works on civil commitment cases, said the office handles about 10 jury trials a year in which patients contest findings that they should be involuntarily treated. That’s out of the 1,500 to 2,000 new cases the three-member team receives annually.
“We don’t win a lot of these,” Mathisen said.
The proceedings in civil commitment cases are sealed from the public because they involve personal health information. The law firm representing Aaron Johnson in an appeal had mailed his parents documents containing the outcome of the jury trial, including the testimony of two physicians who argued Johnson should not be released from Eastern State Hospital, or released on what’s called a “less restrictive alternative” under state law.
Under a less restrictive alternative, a judge will order a person to comply with certain conditions that may include taking prescribed medications and meeting with mental health professionals – two conditions Sharon Johnson said her son was meeting until the day he was shot. McDevitt said in the news conference last week that Johnson and the other two men shot by police over a five-day span ending May 2 had been released on less restrictive alternative orders.
A person can be held on a less restrictive alternative for up to three years under state law, Mathisen said. After that, if the person has not returned to a hospital, physicians can no longer petition for continued involuntary treatment.
In Johnson’s case, a jury sided with the Eastern State Hospital physicians and found Johnson to be gravely disabled, necessitating continued commitment for mental health care. But the presumption under state law is for release after a six-month commitment.
The order went into effect Jan. 7, 2015, meaning Johnson was scheduled to be committed through last July, absent another petition from the physicians that he should remain in their care.
The Seattle law firm of Nielsen, Broman & Koch took up Johnson’s case in appellate court, arguing that his attorney in Spokane was ineffective and the commitment should go before another jury.
Mathisen said the public defender’s office is not involved in selecting a law firm to handle the appeal of a finding of grave disability. Indigent people are referred to the Court of Appeals, which assigns the case to a firm on contract, Mathisen said.
The records Johnson’s family were sent end last December, and an attorney representing him did not respond to a call requesting comment on what happened after the first 180-day commitment ended.
Representatives of the halfway house where Johnson stayed after he left Eastern State Hospital also declined to comment on the case. He had been staying at the West Wynn motel since early April.
Paying to fix the problem
Knezovich said if state legislators provided additional funding for mental health services, it would enable a “stair-step” system where offenders could move from secure, jail-like facilities back into the community.
“We actually, literally, have to have people held in jail because there’s not enough mental health beds available,” Knezovich said, adding that the street is not where mental health services should be rendered.
Knezovich placed the blame at the feet of state lawmakers for a lack of services. But Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the kind of reform Knezovich is calling for would be impossible without additional taxes.
“What we have here is a revenue problem,” said Riccelli, who sponsored mental health legislation passed this year that gave treatment providers more say in designing less restrictive alternative plans. “My callback to Ozzie would be, stand up beside us when we come up with ways to raise revenue.”
Riccelli mentioned the proposals for a capital gains tax and the closing of certain tax loopholes as ways to fund the mental health changes Knezovich called for. The capital gains tax has been mentioned several times in the Legislature but never gained traction.
Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said offering mental health services is a priority but disagreed that new revenue is the answer.
“I feel strongly that our state is not fully funding the services they need to fund,” O’Quinn said, calling the issues at the state’s two mental health hospitals “a crisis.” She also said she believed mental health funding would be this state’s “next McCleary decision,” referring to the constitutional mandate from the state Supreme Court that the Legislature provide more money for education.
“I have a hard time saying they need more money,” O’Quinn said, pointing to an increase in tax receipts at the state level that totaled a 5.3 percent increase in 2015 over the previous year. “I think it’s all about prioritization.”
Locally, a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax is imposed in Spokane County to fund mental health services. The tax was first approved by voters in 2005 and in October 2013 was reauthorized by Spokane County commissioners through the end of 2019.
Riccelli credited Knezovich for his assistance in supporting that tax. But he said the sheriff needs to support revenue-raising options to improve mental health care in the region.
“The state budget is a reflection of our values,” Riccelli said.
Knezovich, in response to Riccelli, said he believed the state budget could be leaner and also emphasized prioritization over new revenue.
“We need to keep people safe, and part of keeping people safe is making sure the mental health system is working,” the sheriff said.
Aaron Johnson’s parents are dissatisfied with that system. But they won’t stop trying to support their son, they said.
“It’s tense to be around him,” Sharon Johnson said. “That’s the only way I can put it. But he’s my son. I love him.”
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