On Wednesday morning, Vanessa L. Hopson, a 35-year-old Olympia woman, was briefly restrained by local police outside her home and died in custody soon after. Activists quickly condemned the police and organized a march Wednesday night—a march that soon turned violent.
According to both the Olympia PD and witness accounts, Hopson was at her apartment complex in early Wednesday morning. Her neighbors observed her outside, acting erratically, removing her clothes, and yelling for someone to call the cops. She appeared to be either having a mental health crisis or was under the influence of drugs—possibly both. A neighbor wrote about what she saw on Facebook, which Splinter first published:
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 ....
This is in line with Olympia PD's account. Olympia Police Department spokesperson Sam Costello says that after Hopson pulled the fire alarm, the fire department arrived on the scene first. When the police arrived in response to 911 calls from neighbors, Costello said her erratic behavior led to the officers to believe she needed to be taken to the hospital for a mental health evaluation.
"They were able to talk to her and deescalate her and get her into handcuffs," Costello said. "They did that, and she started to escalate again and started kicking and lunging and flailing around. They got her on the ground in an attempt to keep her from hurting them or herself."
When it became clear that the officers weren't going to be able to safely transport Hopson to Providence St. Peter Hospital for observation, Costello says the firefighters on scene called the paramedics. When the paramedics arrived, they made the decision that Hopson needed to be sedated for safe transport.
Hopson's death is still under investigation, but soon after paramedics administered the medication, which is sometimes called a "chemical restraint," Hopson stopped breathing. Paramedics attempted to resuscitate her, but they were unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead upon arrival at Providence St. Peter.
As the story spread through Olympia activists communities, the narrative became one of police brutality, and it's not hard to see why: Police have been involved in 109 gun deaths this year to date and it's only the second month of the year. And, according to the Treatment Advocacy Center, a group that pushes for mental health reform, at least half of the people killed by police each year suffer from mental illness. Last year, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four with a history of mental illness, called the Seattle police to report a robbery and was then shot by SPD officers 7 times and died from her injuries. Activists in Olympia were angry about another death, which they saw as the fault of police.
Wednesday night, around 50 protesters gathered in downtown Olympia. Boudicca Walsh, the chairwoman of Thurston County Democrats, was on her way to a meet a friend for a drink at a bar downtown, and ran into the march. The group took over 4th Avenue, periodically blocking the street from vehicles as they marched toward Capitol Way. And then, Walsh says, a large truck came down the street and was blocked by the protest.
"Protesters tried to redirect him," Walsh says. "He started to rev his engine, then he mowed through us." Two people were injured and one was taken to the emergency room.
Walsh took video of the incident.
Warning Graphic content: Angry motorist runs through crowd of protestors in #Olympia. This is moments before the vehicle strikes several people. One person went to hospital with concussion and other injuries has been released and is recovering. pic.twitter.com/N4EbZDbsS7
— Olympia Stand (@Olystand) February 8, 2018
Soon after the truck drove through, protesters formed a line around the injured so street medics could attend to them. And then, according to eye witness accounts, a black Kia Sol approached the line. When the protesters refused to move and tried to redirect the car, the driver, who was identified as a male in his 40s, "white or white-passing," pulled out a pistol and pointed it at them.
"Right after that," Walsh says, "between 8 and 10 police officers in SWAT gear came through and told everyone to disperse. We had to move an injured person three blocks away. All the police did was break the protest up. They didn't ask any questions, they didn't seem concerned about the injured."
Another protester, who goes by the name Agrona, confirmed Walsh's account and said that when the police were alerted that someone had pulled a gun on them, they ignored it. "The cops don't care about what happens to us when we are marching," they said. (The Olympia PD has since confirmed that a complaint was filed against the driver of the white truck, but says they've received no reports about someone pulling a gun on the protesters.)
When it comes to who is directly responsible for Hopson's death, Walsh, for her part, doesn't care if it was the police or the paramedics. "If the investigation bares out that that's what happened, fine," she says. "Someone still made a bad call. An ongoing problem is that the police don't have proper training to handle a mental health crisis. Instead of helping this woman who clearly wanted help, they ended up restraining her on the ground and killing her, whether it was intentional or not. I don't think it changes the outrageous nature of what happened and we're still going to push for accountability."
Walsh and other activists would like to see police more adequately trained to de-esaclate situations in which someone is suffering from a mental health crisis. And this may be mandated by the state soon, if Initiative 940, which will mostly likely be on the ballot on November, is approved by voters. I-940 would reform the state’s deadly force laws, mandate that police undergo mental health and de-escalation training, and require police to provide first aid to victims in the event of a shooting.
"We do not yet know the details of this tragic incident or whether different officer training and tactics would have changed things," says Kimberly Mosolf, an attorney and member of the leadership team at De-Escalate Washington, the organization that got I-940 on the ballot. But, she adds, "Violence de-escalation training involves helping to calm someone in crisis by using compassion and communication, creating space between an officer and the person in crisis, and waiting for backups and other supports to arrive. Despite how often officers need to use violence de-escalation skills, our current law does not require it. That is unfair to our officers and to the citizens they serve."
Still, there is no guarantee that if I-940 were law today Vanessa Hopson would be alive. According to the Costello, the emergency responders, including police, firefighters, and paramedics, all acted according to protocol. Costello, and neighbors who observed the incident, says police tried de-escalate the situation, were unable to do it, and so the medical team ultimately decided that the only way to safely take Hopson to the hospital was under sedation. To the police, it's a tragedy, but it's not malfeasance. To the protesters, it doesn't matter who injected her with sedatives; what matters is that a woman in the community is now dead and someone must answer for that.
Renata Rollins, a member of the Olympia City Council, will be holding a listening session for concerned community members this evening, Friday, 6:30 PM at the Artesian Well and Commons Park.