Lack of state funding fueling deadly mental health crisis in Spokane

Lack of state funding fueling deadly mental health crisis in Spokane

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is blaming a rash of recent officer involved shootings on a lack of funding and bed space for people with mental health problems.

Additionally, Knezovich said that Anthony Garver, the mental patient who led his deputies on a two day manhunt last month, was able to make his escape because Western State Hospital didn’t have the money to buy more secure windows.

On Monday a pair of Spokane police officers rushed to the West Wynn Motel thinking they were going to break up a fight between two guys in a hotel room.

“The first call talked about a knife, trying to kill somebody, the second call talked about a gun,” Spokane Law Enforcement Director Jim McDevitt said.

But there was no one with a knife trying to kill someone. Aaron Johnson’s mother had put him up in a motel room because his mental health problems got him kicked out of a halfway house. Without the benefit of the right drugs and treatment, Johnson devised a plan to have the Spokane Police Department put him out of his misery.

It turns out it was Johnson himself that had called 911 alerting police about a threat at the West Wynn Motel.

“They went around the corner, and the next thing i know, all that I hear is ‘Freeze!’ and then pow, pow, pow,” witness Anthony Altizer said.

Knezovich and McDevitt held a press conference Wednesday to discuss the recent officer-involved shootings, calling them tragedies, blaming them on not enough funding for treatment of mentally ill people.

“When the mental health system has been defunded or has suffered from a lack of resources then those safety nets for this those individuals caught in crisis have holes in them,” McDevitt said.

Regrettably it’s police and sheriff deputies who end up dealing with the patients who’ve slipped through the net, which was the case last Thursday, outside the House of Charity, when a despondent man, Michael Kurtz, charged officers with a knife.

“On the street, when you are dealing with these type of situations, it never goes well. The street is not the place for mental health treatment,” Knezovich said.

Last week’s fatal shooting is a perfect example of that as Kurtz was both mentally ill and homeless.

Knezovich worries there will be more officer assisted suicides unless Washington’s legislature provides more funding to mental health programs.

“I hold our state government responsible for this. It’s time for the state government to take mental health seriously,” he said.

Spokane might catch a break from our mental health crisis next January when Providence Sacred Heart and Fairfax Behavioral Health stand up a 100-bed psych ward. Unfortunately, if the state isn’t willing to pay for poor people to get treatment there, only wealthier patients will get the psychiatric help they need.