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Shawn Vestal: SPD officers, already in harm’s way, negotiate virus challenges to protect the vulnerable

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The man had been released from the hospital with nowhere to go, no money, no wallet, no way to take the train home. His long list of chronic medical problems – blindness, an amputated leg and diabetes among them – made it impossible to get him into a shelter.

He had called his mother in Vancouver, Washington, and told her he had lost the will to live and was thinking about committing suicide, according to a police incident report.

“He doesn’t live in Spokane, and he was basically stuck between the hospital and being unable to go into one of our local shelters,” said Spokane police Officer Michael Baldwin.

Baldwin and Officer Vanessa Johnson were called to Providence Holy Family Hospital on March 20 a little after 6:30 p.m. to check on the man, whose first name is Anthony. They were working what the department calls a “power shift” from the afternoon to the early morning, a shift that targets high-frequency crimes at high-frequency times.

But on this day, in these circumstances, their job was to take care of Anthony. After spending fruitless hours trying a host of different ways to get him somewhere safe, Baldwin took it upon himself: He paid for a room at a hotel for several days.

Baldwin and Johnson, like all of their fellow officers, are the line of last defense when someone falls through the cracks and finds themself with nowhere to go, a host of chronic illnesses and not a cent to their name. They are on the front lines for the people in crisis in the community, and in this moment that means being out and about among people, putting themselves at risk to help others.

That’s always true, of course, but it’s even more so in this moment, as the coronavirus moves invisibly among us. Officers are taking precautions, wearing gloves, sanitizing their hands frequently – but they are still putting themselves in the way of a new form of harm right now.

Answering the call, Baldwin and Johnson found Anthony in a wheelchair in front of the hospital. What came next were hours of attempts to find him shelter. A disabled Marine veteran, he had no history with the VA and getting him help would take a couple of days. He presented challenges that the shelters couldn’t take on, Baldwin said, and other charitable organizations in the city weren’t able to provide the immediate help needed.

“I was frustrated,” Baldwin said. “I’m trying to think, if I’m in his shoes, how’s he supposed to do this. … I’m fully capable, I have money and we just kept hitting walls.”

Eventually, they went to the Ramada Inn, where they planned to do a remote booking with the man’s mother – but then that wouldn’t work either.

Finally, Baldwin paid for the room, with Anthony’s mother saying she’d repay it. The department’s behavior health unit followed up, connected Anthony to services, and by later last week, Baldwin said, “he seems stable and happy and making his appointments.”

Baldwin’s report on the interaction concluded this way: “This incident brought to light a gap in available resources to someone in Anthony’s position.”

And it brought to light who stepped into that gap.

Reading between the lines

Another challenge of the moment, for police and everyone, is dealing with domestic violence. Experts anticipate a worsening of violence in homes as people spend more time together in volatile circumstances, and as leaving home is more difficult than usual.

A recent case drew praise from local domestic violence advocates for a police officer’s adroit handling of a difficult situation.

Officer Kolton McKitrick was called to a home Tuesday, in response to a neighbor’s report of a two-day series of assaults on a woman by her ex. An initial report Monday suggested the woman had been punched in the face; the woman did not want to talk to police about it, however, fearing the man would be arrested. Another report followed Tuesday, that the man had punched the woman as she held her infant child, as well as assaulting the neighbor. Again, though, the woman was very reluctant to cooperate with police.

It’s sadly not that uncommon in domestic violence cases. Victims sometimes feel they will be in greater danger if they tell police; they may have nowhere else to go; they may have grown up in violent homes; they may blame themselves.

In this case, “she was extremely reluctant to give any information, minimized her situation a lot, even going as far to say that she deserved to get hit,” according to a report from a victims’ advocate.

McKitrick took the woman’s statement and did a risk assessment questionnaire. Had he relied solely upon her answers, that would likely have been the end of it. Instead, he “used his experience and wisdom to see through and see what was really going on,” in the words of Chief Craig Meidl – and to convey it clearly enough in his report that an effective response from a victims’ advocate could be mounted, the man charged and arrested, and the victim placed into safe circumstances.

The victims’ advocate later emailed SPD: “Do we send you emails when an officer is excellent on a (risk assessment)? If not let me know who I should send those to but for now I’ll just let you know that Officer McKitrick was excellent today.”