Report by Anne Donahue
The commission charged with analyzing police shootings when a mental health issue is involved has reported that officers acted appropriately – or even were deserving of praise – when they confronted Mark Johnson in June of 2019 and attempted to get him drop the gun he was carrying.
One of the two officers shot and killed him on the Elm Street Bridge when he raised the gun towards them despite their efforts at deescalation, according to the report. The handgun was later found to be a BB gun.
Several local advocates have challenged the 10-page report. The commission came to its conclusions in ways that were “inexcusable, not to mention appalling” by neglecting to collect key facts about what had taken place that morning, said one advocate.
The Mental Health Crisis Response Commission, in its annual report released in February, said it “did not find that any of the police actions or adherence to policy were concerning,” and that the “attempts at deescalation not only followed policy but were laudable for their extensive attempts at verbal engagement in which officers treated Mr. Johnson in a respectful fashion.”
The commission noted that its mandate is to identify underlying causes and make recommendations. It suggested that the fact of Johnson’s “mental health symptoms… worsening” in the weeks before his death could have been because his case manager was away and coverage was being provided by “a person unknown” to him.
Its recommendation was that community l health agencies should provide both a primary and a secondary case manager to clients to ensure coverage by a known person. It said that resources should be allocated to make that possible.
However, a local advocate, Steve Whitaker, charged that, “The investigation failed to address the root cause of the shooting death,” which he said was dispatch error regarding crucial background information known to the police.
Whitaker cited a police response only a few weeks earlier when they brought Johnson to a treatment program after being told he had threatened to jump off the Elm Street bridge, had stopped taking some of his medication and was becoming more paranoid.
The police report said Johnson “admitted he was suicidal and said he had not been sleeping” and agreed to go to the program. When police responded to the report in June that Johnson had a knife and had tried to enter a neighbor’s apartment, the dispatcher failed to connect the report to the earlier incident, Whitaker said.
Officers were more than 138 feet away when they ordered Johnson to get down from the bridge railing that morning and “were in no imminent danger,” Whitaker argued.
“Why not let him jump into the river?” he asked. “He would have dropped the pellet pistol and maybe broke a leg or got a little water in his lungs at worst.” “Why order him down off the rail,” Whitaker said, only to then shoot him?
Morgan Brown, a nearly decades-long neighbor of Johnson, wrote a list of errors and “serious omissions” that he found in the report, largely caused by a lack of thorough fact-finding, he said. Brown said that a basic investigation would have shown that “Johnson was clearly not attempting to arm himself with a potential weapon” when he took a kitchen knife to jimmy a door. It was something he had used before when he locked himself out of his apartment going out for an early morning smoke, Brown reported.
Contradictions included saying that Johnson’s “mental health was managed with a medication regimen with appropriate oversight by his clinical team” but then stating that it was discovered after his death that Mr. Johnson was not regularly taking his oral medication as prescribed. This actually suggested a lack of appropriate oversight, Brown pointed out.
The Commission’s report recognized that Johnson “was not known to be violent, and he generally got along well with others in his community.
“He helped to shovel snowy walkways for his neighbors and participated in craft projects with others. He had an excellent relationship with the manager of the building. He had a daily routine which involved walking around Montpelier each morning.”