A Humane World
On Saturday, May 4, around 5:30 PM a troubled young man lost his life in Spokane Valley. He was shot multiple times by a Spokane County Sheriff's Deputy near the homeless camp in the woods where the 25 year old had been living. The woods are near the Mirabeau Apartments east of N. Pines Rd. Ethan Murray was pursued into the woods to a rock outcrop near his encampment by the Sheriff's Deputy who shot him based on a report of his acting "very high" near some children in the adjacent apartment complex. What exactly happened in those moments before Ethan died will never be known. Ethan can no longer speak for himself. Spokane County Sheriffs Deputies do not wear body cameras. Ethan was unarmed. Ethan was mentally ill. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2015. He had no history of violence, but the Deputy chasing him surely knew none of these things.
Had Ethan committed a crime for which he should die? Presumably, the proximate cause of Ethan's being killed was his unwillingness or inability to understand and comply with the Deputy's shouted commands, a Deputy chasing him in the woods toward his camp, his temporary home, a Deputy probably with pistol drawn, a Deputy certainly hyper-alert and infused with his own adrenaline. Was the chase and the adrenaline warranted? What was the crime? Acting high? It is tempting for some to imagine the Sheriff's Deputy as simply trigger-happy, anxious to kill. To imagine that is to imagine a monster in a uniform. This man is no monster. That is too easy. This officer found himself standing there with a smoking gun because sheriff's office procedure put him in a position to heatedly chase a young man who was merely acting strangely. Once in the chase, as part of our society bristling with guns, the officer likely feared for his life. It is likely that in the Deputy's mind the shots that took Ethan's life were fired in self defense.
I have sympathy for both people acting in this scene. The problem is a broken system, a system that utterly fails to support the mentally-ill, the drug addicted, the homeless, the folks on the margins of society, people many of us dismiss as "them", those expendable people, those failures, failures on account of their imagined moral weakness. The problem is a system that ignores these people until a neighbor's report of "acting high" causes a sheriff's deputy to chase a young man into the woods and shoot him when, in the heat of moment, he fails to comply with a barked order.
I never met Ethan, but Ethan's mother, Justine Murray, is a friend of Emily's. Emily had Ethan in class in middle school. Emily's daughter and Ethan's sister are close friends. By all accounts Ethan was a courteous young man who loved the outdoors, He was diagnosed with schizophrenia four years ago, at the age when the disease commonly shows up. He was never violent, but, as mental illness and self medication intruded on his life, he wandered. For his family it was a challenge to keep track of him, to know he was safe. Justine worked tirelessly trying to help Ethan get the support he needed. She poured and pours herself into advocating for the mentally ill.
Last Sunday, Mothers' Day, May 12, a week and a day after Ethan died in Spokane Valley, Emily and I attended a Celebration of Ethan's Life. All in attendance were aware of Ethan's struggles, his diagnosis of schizophrenia, his encounters with meth and the law, his lapses into unreality, his intermittent homelessness. People spoke of the heart-warming interaction a woman in one of the Mirabeau apartments had with Ethan a couple our hours before he died. (Read the Spokesman article.) How many others, the mentally ill, the down-and-out, the homeless, people of color, how many die under similar adrenaline soaked circumstances at the hand of law enforcement, die in circumstances that never should occur?
In a humane world there would have been resources available to respond to the neighbors' calls about the homeless camp long before the sheriff's office was called to respond to a young man behaving oddly. In a humane world Ethan would have had available consistent help in dealing with his schizophrenia and drug encounters. In a humane world law enforcement would not have to imagine that every person in every encounter is carrying a gun. In a humane world law enforcement would de-escalate the tension in encounters like this one. In a humane world Ethan would still be alive.
Long, long after Ethan's death has dropped out of the news cycle and most readers and TV news watchers have moved on and forgotten, we will still be dealing with the consequences of not having funded and constructed that humane world, that world where fewer law enforcement officers find themselves unnecessarily chasing, threatening, and shooting people whose crime is mental illness, drug use, confusion, and incomprehension.
Keep to the high ground,