James stood next to his white pickup truck. Smoke wafted from his lips and he danced, though no music was playing that morning. He didn’t seem to know quite where he was.
It was October. A month prior, James had tumbled into a manic episode. The 32-year-old had no diagnosed behavioral health issues. In a matter of days, he lost his job, barricaded himself in his house, then drove 270 miles away from his home in Island County, Washington.
He turned up in Vancouver, Washington, where he once lived. His wife — toting the couple’s 5-month-old son — followed and kept tabs on him. She sought help, but police and medical responders said they couldn’t intervene. They blamed a new Washington law.
“I couldn’t have ever imagined that we’d be here in a parking lot, with our baby asleep in the car. I could never have imagined in a million years I’d be in this situation,” Claire said in an interview. “It’s all just really painful. Really, sort of surreal.”
OPB interviewed Claire over the course of several days while she followed James and agreed to change their names to protect their identities.
While James lived out of his truck, Claire tried again and again to get him help. But, the crisis responders told her police would have to be one the ones to transport him to a mental health facility — a task they now refused to do.
A new law, House Bill 1310, had changed how and when law enforcement officers can use force. It passed in July alongside several other laws aimed at preventing excessive force. Police claimed it made cases like James’ off-limits.
When a person suffers a psychotic break and won’t voluntarily seek treatment, mental health specialists often work closely with law enforcement to detain that person and transport them to a specialized facility. The laws are enshrined in the state’s Involuntary Treatment Act.
While HB 1310′s sponsors said it only creates new standards for when law enforcement officers can use force — and doesn’t interfere with the Involuntary Treatment Act — police and prosecutors contend a plain reading prohibits the force that would be required to detain and transport someone.
“What we’re seeing is an outcome right now that is really the opposite of what was intended,” said Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. “Nobody wants this.”
Lawmakers in Olympia are working to untangle the laws so people like James can get help. While that unfolds at the Capitol, people in his situation have fallen through the cracks. For Claire, the experience proved traumatic.
Mentally, James started to show troubling signs in late summer, according to Claire. She began finding him awake at odd hours and muttering. They both chalked it up to a particularly bad bout of insomnia.
In September, he became suspicious of meals she had prepared. He trashed work lunches, reusable container and all. His explanations for doing so, she said, became incomprehensible ramblings. His work had noticed, too, and told him to take leave until he was better.
“Really odd things added up really quickly,” Claire said.
On Sept. 8, she drove James to a local hospital. While talking with a nurse, Claire said her husband became spooked. He fled on foot and ran all the way home. He barricaded himself for the next 10 days by screwing furniture against the door. One night, she said, he snuck out and clipped his and his neighbors’ internet cables.
When local law enforcement arrived, it was the first time police told her about House Bill 1310. Even if James met the standards for involuntarily commitment, they said, they couldn’t detain him using physical force unless they had probable cause to make an arrest.
“They said their hands are tied unless he commits a crime,” Claire recalled. “We said, ‘How is this possible?’ … They were very much, ‘We can’t touch mental illness anymore.’”
That refrain has appeared at police agencies across the state since the law’s passage. Last summer, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins published a letter saying deputies would respond to fewer behavioral health calls. Undersheriff John Horch, who is running to replace Atkins when he retires this year, said agencies like theirs have instructed deputies not to respond to avoid potential liability.
“We don’t want them get jammed up the Criminal Justice Training Commission if they do something they’re not supposed to do,” Horch said, referring to the agency that maintains officer certification. “We probably have one or two of these a day.”
Likewise, the Vancouver Police Department is responding to fewer calls that may involve the Involuntary Treatment Act, said spokesperson Kim Kapp.
Involuntary commitments throughout the state have dropped since the bill’s passage, according to the Washington Health Care Authority spokesperson Amy Blondin. Commitments of patients waiting for a psychiatric bed declined 22% from the third quarter of last year when compared with the year prior.
However, Blondin noted the data doesn’t necessarily prove the bill is driving the drop, which was first reported by The Seattle Times.
Mental health responders are similarly venturing out to fewer calls. According to data provided by Clark County Crisis Services, evaluations from September to November dropped 23% year-over-year.
Initially, Claire blamed the lawmakers for passing the bill. Over the next month, however, the police would also draw her ire.
When the barricades came down at James’ Island County home, it wasn’t long before he was in his white pickup truck driving south. He landed in Vancouver, and spent his days unmoored. Videos captured by his wife show him dancing deliriously and running in bus lanes.
To Claire, it was only a matter of time before he hurt himself. She had followed to keep an eye on him, settling in at The Comfort Inn and Suites near the city’s downtown, tucked next to I-5 and a steakhouse.
Claire rented a room for three weeks. Between food, the hotel room, taking care of her husband and son, and hiring a lawyer, she said she spent at least $5,000.
Over time, the estranged couple developed a routine. Claire delivered breakfast and dinner to James’ truck at the community center, where he had run out of gas. She’d watch James throughout the day, while their son stayed buckled into the car seat in the back of her car. Mercifully, she said, their son hadn’t started crawling or climbing too much.
“As far as the timeline for the baby, being able to handle this on the go, it’s a pretty good time,” Claire said.
Talking with OPB from her hotel room, Claire said it felt like James was in limbo. He was never violent or suicidal, but clearly disengaged. And she worried that he would have to deteriorate before he could get help.
“(James) is not in reality whatsoever where he can make these kinds of decisions. So even just a short detainment to get him stable could be lifesaving,” Claire said.
When she called the crisis hotline, she said, people on the phone told her it would be difficult to get James committed. Over 30 days living at the Comfort Inn and Suites, she estimated she called the crisis line a handful of times, but they usually told her that all they could do was suggest he check himself in.
At the community center parking lot Oct. 10, Claire convinced crisis specialists to try again. They arrived with sheriff’s deputies close behind. Then, James turned and left. While his truck sat in the parking lot, he headed toward the street and then ducked toward the I-5 overpass.
According to Claire, the crisis specialists issued a pickup order — an official document requesting law enforcement to detain and transport a person to be evaluated under the Involuntary Treatment Act. But the chances that any police officer would pick James up, Claire said, were “slim to none.”
“It feels like a whole charade, like what is this play we’re putting on?” she said. “It always comes back that I’m the only one who can help (James).”
Horch, the undersheriff, said he’s heard similar frustrations, but maintains they are handcuffed by the law.
“There’s been some frustration on both sides,” he said. “I know there have been some issues, deputies have showed up and mental health (workers) thought XYZ was going to happen and we said, ‘No, it can’t, because of this.’”
Cases like James’ have frustrated lawmakers who sponsored the bill, too. Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said in an interview that police who aren’t providing help under the Involuntary Treatment Act have been neglecting the public.
“People expect the police to respond to a call,” Goodman said.
Goodman, who as chair of the House Public Safety Committee helped usher in the suite of police reform bills last year, contended that nothing in House Bill 1310 precluded deputies from assisting in James’ case.
He pointed to a letter written by the state attorney general’s office in August that assured legislators the law “does not prohibit” law enforcement from responding to such calls.
Strachan, with the police association, agreed with the letter: police can respond to calls and show up at the scene. But, he countered, the expectation becomes that police will help detain that person if necessary, and that’s what gives law enforcement pause.
“That’s where the confusion comes from. And, again, you have 300 different legal counsels for 300 different agencies giving 300 different kinds of advice,” he said.
This week, the House Public Safety Committee is moving quickly on a legislative fix. The new legislation, House Bill 1735, clarifies that police can use force within reason on mental health calls like James’.
A recent public hearing about the legislation brought several more stories of people falling through the gaps in recent months.
A representative of Catholic Housing Services told lawmakers that in one city where they provide housing, a resident poured gasoline on himself and threatened to set himself ablaze. Police would not respond.
In one tearful testimony, Diane Ostrander, of Redmond, recounted her son spending 25 days homeless in October because she could not get him committed. She and her son, she said, eventually had a physical altercation that sent him to jail.
“This 1310 bill has devastated our family — emotionally, physically and mentally in so many ways,” Ostrander said. “There needs to be 100% clarification in the use of force for mental health crisis situations so the police can provide any help necessary, with force, for crisis responders to detain someone in a mental health crisis.”
Goodman expressed optimism they could strike a balance. He said the stories were “exactly the kind of situations we were hoping to avoid.”
Claire and James eventually managed to get back to Island County without the assistance of law enforcement. Almost two months after his psychotic break, James began to show some clarity, Claire said. She drove back to Island County, and James followed in his pickup.
“I had been at it for a solid three weeks in hotels and it just felt like it wasn’t going to happen,” Claire said. “It just felt like the only option left was to head home.”
The couple remained apart at first. James agreed to stay at a campground. Eventually, he agreed to see a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed bipolar and began treatment.
According to Claire, her husband has returned to work, but not with the same company. By January, some semblance of normalcy had returned, but not all of it. She said she worried about another episode.
When told that HB 1310 could be changing, Claire called it good news, but said she was exasperated. Those weeks strained her faith in the state’s systems to help people in behavioral health crises.
“It makes me not want to live in Washington,” she said.