The Night They Shot Aaron
By Maurice Smith
(Editor’s Note: I originally wrote this article following the shooting of Aaron D. Johnson in 2016 outside the West Wynn Motel in Spokane. His was the second of two shootings (the other being Michael Kurtz, shot outside the House of Charity) involving mentally challenged and homeless individuals in Spokane. I share it because the interaction of homeless/mentally challenged individuals with local law enforcement is an issue with both local and larger implications. For an excellent personal/professional perspective on this issue, see Day 18 – We Almost Shot Steve, by Police Lt. Barton Stevens in our book “30 Days And 30 Ways.”)
For several days now I have wanted to write this in response to the shooting of a homeless individual outside of House of Charity. I felt the need to say something, based on my own experiences, but I hesitated. Then something happened to galvanize my thoughts and to compel me to write them down in the hope of offering some perspective. I read about the shooting on Monday at the West Wynn Motel and I saw the name of the victim: Aaron D. Johnson. I was stunned and taken back two years to a cold night in January of 2014. You see, Mr. Johnson and I have a history together.
It was a Thursday. I received a call from Marty McKinney, the day-to-day Director of Truth Ministries Men’s Shelter on East Sprague. “Can you handle the opening shift at the Shelter tonight. Julie and I have been invited to a birthday party and we would like to go.” “No problem,” I said. “I’ve got you covered. Have fun.” My wife and I had served the men at the shelter for several years, including being long-time board members. I had worked the opening shift countless times. No big deal. This night would be no exception.
The shelter opened for the men at 8:00 PM. I could tell by the crowd in the waiting room that we would be full, just like the night before. We would have 40+ men in the house. In addition, I had other half-a-dozen volunteers from a local Church there to fix and serve dinner. Toward the end of check-in, Mr. Johnson showed up, toting a plastic bag of personal belongings and a wooden 3-foot-long 4X4 (?!). In the crowd of people around the check-in desk, he slipped past me and headed toward the bed he had occupied the previous night (without checking in). Fortunately, one of my desk volunteers caught him and sent him back to me for check-in. As I attempted to talk with him and process his check-in, he became verbally confrontational (even irrational), refusing to cooperate and surrender his bag of personal items (normal for check-in when all bags and backpacks are tagged and stored in a holding area for safe-keeping). Things were escalating. His language became increasingly threatening (words like “kill” and “murder” are not ones we want to hear during check-in).
I now had a decision to make. We operated under some basic rules for such situations. First, try to dial things down. Let the air out. Don’t make a situation worse by adding to it. Second, isolate the individual and take away any audience who might further ratchet things up. Third, if the first two fail, take the situation (i.e., the guest) and any danger it might pose, outside. I had a shelter full of men and church volunteers to consider. Their safety came first. He was already becoming threatening toward me. Would that get worse if I allowed him to stay? I informed Mr. Johnson that it was time for him to leave, and I gently shepherded him toward the door (all of this caught on video which was later reviewed many times).
But then I had another problem. Once outside, he crossed the alley and stood beside the cars of the church volunteers. Great. They would soon be leaving and heading for their cars. What if he threatened one of them. Next, one of my shelter volunteers said, “Maurice, did you see that he had a knife?” No, I hadn’t seen that. I had only seen the 4X4, and that was bad enough. Now I had another decision to make. Do I let things “play out,” or do I take pre-emptive action? I called 911 and explained what was going on. “I need the Police to come and get him out of the alley.” I returned to the night’s immediate need – completing the check in for the men who would be staying. Then it happened. The sound I can never forget. “Pop – pop.” Pause. “Pop – pop – pop – pop.”
In case you’re wondering, yes, gunshots really do sound like firecrackers. At least that’s what my volunteers thought. “Were those firecrackers?” one of them asked. I groaned. “No,” I said. “Those weren’t firecrackers.”
Out in the alley, the Police had arrived. When they attempted to confront Mr. Johnson, he brandished the knife my volunteers had seen. When he refused their orders to drop the knife, and when tasering proved ineffective, they opened fire. Although shot eight times, Mr. Johnson survived.
I spent the next six hours with the Police as they investigated and recorded the crime scene, reviewed the internal video recording and interviewed everyone (yes, everyone) in the shelter as to what they had seen and heard. I arrived home around 3 AM and spent the next few hours lying in bed, reliving the night’s events and wondering. Had he been tweaking? I had helped meth addicts detox before. They can be delusional, irrational and aggressive. Is that what happened? It had happened before in the shelter when I was there. Or had I made a mistake this time? Would things have turned out differently for everyone involved if I had handled things better? 3 AM is a lonely time to wrestle with such questions. I don’t wish it on anyone.
As it turned out, Mr. Johnson was not a meth-head. He had been struggling with schizophrenia, had been off his medications, and had been building toward an episode for some time. That “time” turned out to be 8:45 on a Thursday evening at Truth Ministries while I was attempting to check him in for the night.
So, yes, Mr. Johnson and I have a history together. And my heart sank in one of those “Oh, no, not again” moments when I read that he was the victim of a police shooting at the West Wynn Motel. On a personal level, I am tired of this seemingly unending nightmare, whether at Truth Ministries, House of Charity or the West Wynn. But in the midst of my own painful reflections on these events, I would like to offer some perspective. Not everyone will agree with me, but that’s OK. I offer this simply as someone who has been there.
First, be slow to judge events and those involved. As a former pastor, I am reminded of the words of Jesus, when He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). That’s good advice. Frequently, things are not what they appear to be at first glance. Initial reports are often incomplete. There is often more (or less) to the story than appearance suggests. Get all the facts before you start drawing conclusions. As a result of my own experiences, I am much slower to make snap judgments; about people, about situations, about what could or could not have been done better or differently.
Second, show grace to those involved, and resist the urge to point fingers of blame, at least until we have time to put all of the puzzle pieces together. We don’t know if anyone involved did anything “wrong” to create this situation. If they did, it will eventually come out. But sometimes a tragedy is simply a tragedy, with no culprit to blame. And this is a tragedy for everyone involved. Ordinary people who never wanted to be a player in such a tragedy now find themselves awake at 3AM asking “Why?” and “What could I have done differently?” Trust me on this one. Been there. Done this.
Third, let the full impact of these happenings sink in. Let them change you and motivate you. Resist anger and the temptation to embrace an agenda or to over-react. Instead, embrace passion for the marginalized, and turn your response toward a personal resolution to make a difference.
Fourth, let this be the beginning of a renewed and productive conversation about the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized in our community. The need to get people off the streets, even out of shelters, and into stable housing. The need to better address the mental health needs of people like Mr. Johnson. The need to better resolve such situations without having to resort to deadly force. The need to find creative solutions, rather than assigning blame and somehow thinking that will solve our problems. It won’t.
Fifth, and finally, allow these events change you. They have the potential to make you a better, wiser, more compassionate, more patient and more reflective person. Maybe even someone who can make a difference on behalf of others. Trust me on this one. Been there. Done this. And it changed me.