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Body cameras corroborate Spokane Police accounts of May 2 shooting at West Wynn Motel

Jim McDevitt responds to an officer involved shooting at the West Wynn Motel on Monday, May 2, 2016, in Spokane, Wash.   TYLER TJOMSLAND (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim McDevitt responds to an officer involved shooting at the West Wynn Motel on Monday, May 2, 2016, in Spokane, Wash. TYLER TJOMSLAND (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Body-camera footage released Wednesday by the Spokane Police Department appears to corroborate previous accounts of the May 2 police shooting that injured 32-year-old Aaron Johnson.

Johnson was shot six times in the side and lower back after he pursued a running police officer on the second-floor balcony of the West Wynn Motel. Johnson wielded what appeared to be a real gun; it was later identified as a replica BB gun.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell ruled the shooting justified in July. Johnson’s mother, Sharon Johnson, has reviewed motel surveillance footage and said it appeared her son – who has severe schizophrenia – instigated the shooting.

“It was pretty clear from the evidence and videotape that it was an attempt by Aaron to commit suicide by cop,” his aunt, Judy Noritake, said Wednesday.

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The officer, identified Wednesday as Shane Phillips, fired nine times from behind a waist-high wall, where he took cover after Johnson chased him down the long balcony.

Phillips’ body camera was not activated at the time of the shooting, but his voice can be heard on another officer’s footage, repeatedly shouting “Get down!” before shots ring out.

Officer Teresa Fuller, a police spokeswoman, said Phillips didn’t record the incident because he had turned his camera completely off to save battery power after responding to a previous incident. The cameras can be left on while not recording, but still draining the battery, so officers often turn them completely off, Fuller said.

The Spokane Police Department has yet to finalize policies that dictate when officers must activate their body cameras.

Since the shooting, every officer in the department has been outfitted with a newer camera model from manufacturer Taser International that features a longer battery life, Lt. Steve Wohl said.

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Wohl also said the number of shots was justifiable because Phillips fired in rapid succession and needed to be sure he had neutralized the apparent threat.

An officer handcuffed Johnson about three minutes after the shooting, as he lay face-down on the balcony. Paramedics arrived, and the ambulance left the parking lot about five minutes later.

It was the third time a Spokane police officer shot a man during a five-day period, prompting calls for mental health care reform by local leaders.

On April 29, two officers shot and killed Mike Kurtz, a homeless man who was threatening them with a knife outside the House of Charity. And on May 1, officers shot and injured 34-year-old Charleston D. Harper in front of a downtown bar after he allegedly threatened people with a machete.

It was also the second such incident involving Johnson, who was shot by Spokane police outside the Trust Ministries in January 2014.

Capt. Tracie Meidl said confrontations with suicidal suspects usually end peacefully thanks to crisis-intervention training that is required of all officers.

“Because of that training and de-escalation techniques, we are only using force in such a small percentage (of suicide-related incidents)” she said. “And we are able to actually get help and get relief to the majority of the citizens that we come across.”

Johnson was hospitalized after the May 2 shooting; he was booked into the Spokane County Jail on an assault charge four days later and has remained there ever since.

Sharon Johnson said a lawyer is contesting a determination from an Eastern State Hospital psychiatrist that her son is mentally competent to stand trial. Doctors have previously said he ought to remain in the hospital indefinitely.

“He’s a seriously tormented person,” said Noritake, his aunt. “He should be the poster boy for everything that is wrong with mental health care.”

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