A 35-year-old woman in crisis died Wednesday after being administered a “chemical restraint” by paramedics called in by the Olympia, WA, Police Department.
As a department spokesperson told the AP, the woman, who was identified by the coroner as Vaneesa L. Hopson, was apparently “suffering from mental illness and/or acute effects of substance abuse.” Up to a quarter of the people killed by the police every year show signs of mental illness.
According to the department, Hopson pulled a fire alarm in her apartment complex early Wednesday in a moment of crisis. When police officers appeared on the scene, they opted to detain her for a “mental health evaluation.” At first, according to Sam Costello, an Olympia Police Department spokesperson, she was handcuffed “without incident.” But when the unarmed woman fought the restraints, police held her on the ground as paramedics administered a “chemical restraint”—a term that’s fallen out of favor with many clinicians but could apply to a number of antipsychotic or sedative medications, including ketamine. (The same department spokesperson told Splinter he did not know what drug was used.) Hopson stopped breathing shortly after.
“The decision to pursue that course of action is a medical decision, not one made by law enforcement,” Costello told Splinter.
Alisha Bliss Monteilh, who said she lives below Hopson’s apartment in the same complex, posted her account of the incident on Facebook. She told Splinter she’s the one who called the police.
“That’s exactly what she said to me: ‘I just want someone to get the police here,’ her exact words over and over,” Monteilh said. “So I called them.”
Her account posted online also suggests the woman, while clearly experiencing a serious mental health crisis, was in need of immediate assistance:
...She freaked out pulled a fire alarm just so someone would call the police. Which I did! After I let her know they were coming she continued to scream at all the tenants that had to leave our apartments due to the alarm. She then proceeded to pull a hose from ground and swing it at the people (kids among) yelling incoherently. She then proceeded to strip and yell thru the complex. When the police finally restrained her she was still erratic and moving around. The police kept her to the ground until paramedics arrived. She would not allow them to let her get up because every time they tried she thrashed around. She was a danger to herself and the people around ....
Last year the Seattle police, already under federal investigation, killed a mentally ill pregnant woman after she called to report a theft. According to the Washington Post’s database, 17 mentally ill Americans have been fatally shot by police since the beginning of 2018. And while the Olympia police department is referring queries about Hopson’s cause of death to Thurston County’s EMS, some activists say the incident is the most recent example of the police’s unnecessary use of force.
On Wednesday evening, approximately 50 people gathered for a Vaneesa L. Hopson “memorial march” in Olympia, calling for “links between disability justice and police abolition.” But videos and accounts from protesters at the event documented how it turned chaotic when a truck accelerated into protestors who had tried to block its movement, which is shown in a video posted on Twitter by Olympia Stand. An anonymous account posted by a protest group claimed another motorist pulled a gun on the protestors. “Of course the cops ignored people yelling “He’s got a gun!” the anonymous participant wrote.
Another person present, who wished to remain anonymous because of threats against Olympia-area protestors in the past, said local agencies’ handling of Hopson’s call was “inappropriate and unacceptable.” The protest, he said, went on without incident until a truck started “trying to force its way through” the crowd and sped up when protestors got in front of it. He saw only one person with immediate injuries—“a nasty gash on their forehead”—although he said a handful of people were hit. Police in riot gear ordered demonstrators to disperse soon afterwards.
Thurston County Medic One, the local EMS center, says it’s cooperating with other local agencies, which are currently investigating Hopson’s death.
UPDATE, 1:30 pm ET: This post has been updated to include comments from Thurston County Medic One, the Olympia Police Department, and people present at Wednesday evening’s protest.
CORRECTION: The headline of this post incorrectly stated that it was the police who administered the “chemical restraint.” Although the police were involved in the incident, paramedics administered the substance. The headline has been updated.