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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Police were called six times in two days on mentally ill man; the sixth proved fatal

Justine Murray poses with her son Ethan Murray, who was shot and killed by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies on May 4, 2019, after he allegedly pulled an item from his pants.  (Courtesy of Justine Murray)
Justine Murray poses with her son Ethan Murray, who was shot and killed by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies on May 4, 2019, after he allegedly pulled an item from his pants. (Courtesy of Justine Murray)

In the two days before Ethan Murray was shot to death by a Spokane County deputy, he had been contacted by local city and county officers on six separate occasions.

In each of these incidents, Murray – a 25-year-old homeless man – exhibited signs of distress indicating mental illness. He stuffed money into his mouth and chewed it. His answers to officers’ questions were nonsensical or nonsequiturs. He talked to himself – “having a conversation with the air,” as one officer put it in a written report. He was writing on his body with a ballpoint pen in another instance, “but he and the writing made no sense,” another officer wrote.

Murray was often half-dressed, shirtless and in socks, and filthy. Police responded to calls about him in a residential alleyway, at a café and pizza restaurant, and acting out in a park. He made people uncomfortable, though wasn’t threatening.

Of the several 911 calls to police in his final hours, callers frequently assumed he was, as one put it, “higher than a kite.” Murray did use drugs and had been arrested and charged with drug-related crimes, but medical examiners did not find evidence of that in post-mortem examinations.

What he was exhibiting were the signs of an illness that had plagued Murray, and his mother, Justine Murray, for years and years: schizoaffective disorder.

Of the six times that police documented their response to complaints about Murray on May 3 and May 4, 2019, five ended peacefully. He was arrested once on a misdemeanor warrant and released quickly from jail; in four cases, officers simply let him go. In those encounters, he complied when asked for his name and other information, and did not resist officers.

In two incidents captured on Spokane Police Department body cameras, officers showed extraordinary patience and care for Murray, and in one case gave him a ride – though they did not get him connected to treatment, as his mother, Justine Murray, wishes they had.

The sixth and final time police responded to a 911 call about Murray ended with Spokane County Deputy Joseph Wallace chasing Murray into the woods near a Spokane Valley apartment complex, where he shot and killed Murray in an incident no one else witnessed. Wallace claimed Murray had pulled a knife on him in close quarters and he had no choice but to shoot.

The only knife found was one that had been dropped by another deputy at the scene. It had initially been booked as evidence in the case, but was later withdrawn.

The shooting was later ruled as justified by the prosecutor’s office, but Justine Murray has long had – and publicly aired – concerns about the incident, questioning whether Wallace needlessly escalated the incident, and questioning whether the follow-up investigation was unbiased and thorough.

She filed a federal lawsuit against the county and Wallace on behalf of her son’s estate last week, which argues that there was “no justification for Defendant Wallace chasing the unarmed, sober, and obviously mentally ill Ethan into the woods and no justification for shooting him to death.”

‘Clearly mentally ill’

The suit raises many questions about the shooting, including arguments that forensic evidence conflicts with Wallace’s version of events, that Wallace failed to apply de-escalation techniques as required by department policy, and that claims that Murray was displaying a weapon – or, later, a pair of sunglasses that Wallace had mistaken for a knife – did not hold up to scrutiny and amounted to a “homicide in search of a justification.”

Her attorney, Braden Pence of the Mazzone Law Firm in Everett, said Ethan Murray’s five previous encounters with police offer important contrasts to what happened in the sixth one: Officers used de-escalation techniques, did not criminalize Murray’s expressions of mental illness, and treated him with respect and care even when he walked away from them or behaved erratically.

“He was clearly mentally ill,” Pence said. “But these officers managed to encounter Ethan and see Ethan walk or run away from them and these officers managed to let that not result in a deadly encounter.”

The question of how police officers handle encounters with the mentally ill is at the forefront of the national conversation about law enforcement.

Many departments – including the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office – have begun deploying teams with mental-health professionals to help manage such calls.

The American Psychological Association estimates that a fifth of all police encounters involve a person showing signs of mental illness. A Washington Post investigation of police shootings in 2020 included a national database that tracked 1,324 fatal shootings by police over the previous six years involving someone involved in the throes of a mental health crisis. That accounted for about a quarter of all fatal police shootings during that time.

Justine Murray, who lives and owns the La Chic Boutique in Sandpoint, has been dealing with her son’s mental illness since he was a teenager – an exhausting roller coaster of him veering between periods of relative stability and times when he goes off his meds and ends up on the streets, getting into repeated trouble with law enforcement, including drug charges and other misdemeanors.

Most recently, he would shuttle back and forth between her home in Sandpoint and the streets of Spokane.

“He’d show up on my doorstep a lot,” she said. “He’d show up in crisis. I’d have to pick him up in weird places like Oregon, or one time in Florida.”

What she has seen in the evidence gathered for her suit, particularly in the five encounters before the shooting, deepened her sense that the official version of events in the shooting was unreliable – especially given that there is no corroborating evidence like body camera video or witnesses.

“Ethan, in all the times he was stopped by cops, all the incidents before he was killed, there is no time the police said he swore at them or was violent,” she said. “He wasn’t angry with them. It’s hard for me to feel like it’s the truth when we can’t see the truth.”

She also wondered why none of the officers in the earlier incident did more to connect him with professional help.

“It was really hard to understand why nobody took him to the hospital,” she said.

‘System failed this guy’

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he could not comment on the specifics of the case or the shooting, because it involves pending litigation. But on the question of mental illness and the challenges for deputies on the street, he said that the system puts officers in impossible situations and lets people like Ethan Murray down.

We have starved our statewide system of funding and resources, he said, and the local systems simply do not have the resources to deal with it. Like SPD, his department has begun using behavioral health units – pairing officers with mental health professionals from Frontier Behavioral Health – and says they’ve had a lot of success in situations where people are in mental health crisis.

But the teams can’t be everywhere, and the current program is funded by a grant that will expire. A true commitment to the issue would require more local spending – “a serious investment of real dollars,” he said.

When someone is in crisis, by the time police are called, things have usually gotten particularly bad, he said. Officers can involuntarily commit someone who is a danger to himself or others, but it’s a difficult judgment call if someone is behaving erratically or strangely, but not necessarily dangerous to anyone.

Knezovich and other police officials have complained recently that a new law has made that even more difficult, requiring that the danger be “immediate” for performing an involuntary commitment.

“By the time we’re called, they’ve usually spiraled out of control. It’s the worst place to deal with mental illness,” he said.

“The system failed this guy across the board – between two states and multiple contacts” with public health and police agencies, he said.

‘What’s the answer?’

Murray’s sixth and final interaction with officers started around 5:30 p.m. on May 4, 2019. A resident of an apartment complex at 2820 N. Cherry St. reported that Murray was behaving suspiciously, running around shirtless and dirty, and that he seemed to be under the influence of drugs. Murray had run between children at a playground area, as well, the caller said.

When deputies arrived, Murray was on the other side of a fence separating the complex from a vacant area to the east. A woman who lived in the complex told Wallace that Murray had been “threatening the children” and Wallace wrote in his report that he was concerned Murray might be a threat to the public.

According to Wallace’s account, Murray ignored his commands to stop and walked off – not wearing shoes or a shirt – toward a wooded area on the other side of the field, which has been commonly used as a camp by homeless people. Wallace eventually caught up to him in the woods, where he said, in his report, that he unintentionally found himself face-to-face with Murray, with a steep dropoff behind him preventing him from backing away.

He wrote that Murray ignored his commands, cursed him and pulled a knife from his pocket as he stood five feet away.

“Having nowhere to go, fearing for my life and having no other option considering the proximity of the deadly attack, I … began firing,” Wallace wrote.

The lawsuit makes several specific criticisms of the shooting and investigation. Chasing Murray, who had not committed a crime, into the woods was unnecessary – as illustrated in the other incidents – and Wallace did not employ other de-escalation techniques, as required by department policy.

“Further,” the suit alleges, “Wallace did not possess a taser at the time of this incident and, instead, relied solely on lethal force.”

Wallace justified the shooting by claiming Murray had threatened him with a knife. In his official report, released 30 days after the incident, he referred repeatedly to the knife repeatedly and specifically as an accepted fact.

But the only knife that was ever found belonged to a deputy, who came forward after it had been booked into evidence in the case and said he had lost it. It was later removed from evidence, and investigators then said that Murray had been reaching for a pair of sunglasses that was found among other items in the area.

The suit says that nothing in the previous incidents Murray had with police indicates he had any sunglasses.

It also asserts that Wallace’s statement contradicts other forensic evidence. “Even if … Wallace’s statements were entirely reliable, they demonstrate a profoundly inept approach to the final encounter that led directly to Ethan’s death,” the suit says.

The suit is seeking damages, in the Eastern District of U.S. District Court, for civil-rights violations and negligence. Justine Murray hopes that the case will bring attention to the issues involved with policing, mental illness and accountability.

She has started a foundation to provide support and resources for the mentally ill in North Idaho, and a judgment in her favor would help to support that.

Ultimately, she would like for this to be the last case of its kind.

“What’s the answer?” she asked. “What can we do so this doesn’t happen to anybody else?”

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