The Price for Being Mentally Ill in Spokane County
What is Wrong with Us?
Ethan Murray’s life was ended behind the Mirabeau Apartments in Spokane Valley on Saturday, May 4, 2019, at about 5:30PM. Five rounds fired by Spokane County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Wallace’s service pistol snuffed out Ethan’s twenty-five year existence. His crime was being mentally ill with schizophrenia, being shirtless, dirty, and acting strangely around people unfamiliar with him. On May 4th and the day before, five other encounters with the police, two documented with body cameras, had ended peacefully. Each time the officers concluded that Ethan made people uncomfortable but “wasn’t threatening”. Since he “wasn’t threatening”, the officers lacked grounds to take Ethan into custody and commit him to a psych ward for observation and treatment. Ethan’s sixth encounter with law enforcement in those two days ended his life.
This is close to personal. I have a peripheral connection to Ethan’s mother, Justine Murray. I know Ethan’s sister. I visited the Mirabeau Apartment complex off Pines Road in Spokane Valley shortly after Ethan was killed to absorb the geographic setting. I attended Ethan’s memorial. My partner knew Ethan and his mother before Ethan descended into schizophrenia. She was aware of Justine’s herculean efforts to get help for her son—and of the legal challenges to obtaining help for a mentally ill loved one who lacks a clear grasp of the need for help precisely because of their mental illness.
Sheriff Knezovich, a Republican, and the same man who approved Lt. Col. Grossman’s “Killology” training for his County Sheriff’s department deputies, now says “that the system puts officers in impossible situations and lets people like Ethan Murray down” and adds, “We have starved our statewide system of funding and resources…and the local systems simply do not have the resources to deal with it.” That is a fine statement for a stalwart Republican whose Party is relentlessly opposed to changes in taxes and tax structure and spending money for social (in this case. mental health) programs.
In a humane world Ethan would have gotten the help he needed. Society failed him. We voters are at fault along with the sheriff’s deputy who took Ethan’s life. We are at fault for not assembling a majority that demands changes in the mental health system, the legal constructs, and the funding, and, yes, the tax system, that set Ethan up for this tragic end.
Where were the Trump Republican Evangelical Christians when these verses were read in church? They still ring in my ears a half century later…
37 “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? 38 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?39 Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ Matthew 25:37-40
On July 29th Ethan’s story re-surfaced in the news. Ethan’s parents, Justine Murray and Mark Jentsch, filed a lawsuit with the United States Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on behalf of Ethan’s estate against Joseph Wallace (the deputy who shot Ethan) and the Spokane County Sheriff's Department.
Emma Epperly, writing for the Spokesman, covered the lawsuit filing in and article dated July 30, “Family of mentally ill man alleges ‘warrior mindset’ training at Spokane sheriff’s office contributed to son’s death”.
Shawn Vestal recounted the story and the suit in his article in the Spokesman on July 31, “Police were called six times in two days on mentally ill man; the sixth proved fatal.” This article is well worth reading in its entirety. Mr. Vestal notes that:
Justine Murray hopes that the case will bring attention to the issues involved with policing, mental illness and accountability.
Justine Murray struggled from the beginning of Ethan’s illness in 2012 to obtain for him the help he needed, but she was met roadblocks at every turn. In addition to the lawsuit with which she hopes to raise awareness, she and her partner Matt have established the Ethan Murray Fund, a non-profit that hopes to raise $50,000 to offer financial support for mental health, homeless and addiction services in North Idaho.
For more on Justine’s and Ethan’s struggles see Josh Kelety’s article from May 23, 2019, in The Inlander.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. I presume the lawsuit is in federal court, rather than a Washington state or county court because Ethan Murray’s Estate and his parents who are bringing the suit reside in the State of Idaho. A few other things worthy of note: 1) “Deputies do not wear body cameras. The lawsuit alleges Wallace didn’t file a statement on the incident until nearly a month later, and only after reviewing dispatch records and audio recording of the incident.” If that is true, then there is something very wrong with this picture. 2) “The prosecutor’s office determined Wallace was justified in shooting Murray because the law takes into account that he could reasonably believe Murray posed a threat of serious bodily harm, according to a news release.” The Spokane County Prosecutor, Larry Haskell, is notorious for his staunch lock-’em-up attitude when it comes to civilians, not so much with law enforcement. The same 2019 Spokesman article notes that “Wallace has since returned to work in the sheriff’s office patrol division.” Sheriff Knezovich must have figured the storm had blown over.
P.P.S. With some regret I note that I do not have the personal contacts with the families of other victims of law enforcement excess, but this is a family I know. What happened to Ethan sheds light on other events that I might at one time have dismissed as “policing is a hard job” or “well, he should have been more cooperative”. I laud the deputies who dealt properly with Ethan in the day before his death (apart from the fact that the system blocked efforts they might have made to connect him with treatment), but I am now also a firm believer that law enforcement culture needs to change. It makes me angry when I read of eastern Washington sheriffs and police chiefs calling a press conference to make a political statement about the laws meant to adjust that culture.