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Report: Gaps in mental health services contributed to 2019 fatal police shooting in Montpelier

State Police vehicles on road in front of brick building
John Dillon
Vermont Public
The Mental Health Crisis Response Commission, which reviews incidents where police injure or kill people in mental health crises, found that gaps in services contributed to a Montpelier man’s death in 2019.

Gaps in mental health services contributed to the fatal police shooting of a man in Montpelier in 2019, according to a recent report issued by the Mental Health Crisis Response Commission.

Montpelier police were called on August 9, 2019 after Mark Johnson, 62, confronted one of his neighbors with a knife, according to the report.

When police arrived, Johnson fled and appeared to be carrying a gun. Johnson stopped at a bridge near a roundabout in the city, and police tried to get him to drop what he was carrying. Johnson was shot and killed after appearing to point the object at the officers. Police later found that the apparent weapon Johnson had was a pellet gun.

The Attorney General’s Office and Washington County State’s Attorney determined the use of force was legally justified, and declined to file charges against the officer.

More from Vermont Public: After Separate Investigations, Police Officer Cleared In Fatal Montpelier Shooting

The commission’s report, submitted to the Legislature this month, found that around the time of the shooting Johnson’s primary case manager through Washington County Mental Health Services was on vacation. The organization did assign Johnson a backup case manager, but it was Johnson’s responsibility to reach out, according to the report. It was unclear if Johnson and the backup case manager had any contact, the report says.

Washington County Mental Health Services didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Johnson, who struggled with mental health issues for years, stopped taking his medication around that time, which also appears to have contributed to the decline in his mental health, the report says. The manager of Johnson’s apartment complex said that in the weeks leading up to Johnson’s death, he appeared depressed and wasn’t as friendly or outgoing, according to the commission’s report.

The commission’s review of the incident found that mental health agencies need a better system to cover when a case manager is absent, said Kristin Chandler, coordinator of Team Two and a member of the commission.

“There maybe should be a secondary care manager, who could who would be familiar with the client,” Chandler said. “And the client would be familiar with them so they could step in if the primary care manager was absent.”

More from Vermont Public: Mental illness likely factored into recent police shootings in Vermont, continuing a long-standing pattern

The commission did not find any issues with how Montpelier police handled the situation, and wrote that the officers tried to de-escalate the situation.

“The attempts at de-escalation 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 wrote in the report.

The Mental Health Crisis Response Commission was created in 2017 by the legislature to review incidents where police kill or seriously injure people who are in a mental health crisis. The report on Johnson’s death is the second fatal police shooting that the group has reviewed.

The first report focused on the fatal shooting of Ralph Grenon in 2016. Grenon suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and was in the midst of a psychotic break when Burlington Police shot and killed him. The commission’s report faulted police response, as well as Howard Center for its approach to Grenon’s care in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

More from Vermont Public: Prosecutors Rule Shooting Of Mentally Ill Man Was Justified, Police Release Body Camera Video

About a quarter of all police shootings in the United States from 2013 to 2019 involved a person experiencing a mental health crisis, according to aWashington Post analysis. The newspaper also found shootings of mentally ill people were 39% more likely to take place in areas where the population is under 1 million.

In Vermont, police shootings frequently involve people who suffer from mental illness, including two last year. Burlington police shot a 20-year-old man in the leg who later told investigators he was trying to get police to kill him. Shortly after the Burlington shooting, Ludlow police shot and killed a 35-year-old man after a car chase. The man made dozens of 911 calls that evening making various complaints, threats and suicidal statements.

Prosecutors declined to file charges against the Ludlow officer last year. The AG’s office has not yet issued a decision about the Burlington shooting.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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