Genesee County sheriff deputy discusses decision to avoid lethal force after stabbing

A judge is hopeful this case sheds light on the need for long-term mental health facilities in the state
Published: Aug. 18, 2020 at 5:47 PM EDT
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - (8/18/2020) - A Genesee County sheriff deputy stabbed while trying to get a mentally ill Flint man to the hospital for treatment is recovering while the suspect in the case is in jail.

“It could have been anybody at his door that day. I mean, I’m thankful that I was OK,” Genesee County Sheriff Deputy Greg Howard said.

Sheriff Chris Swanson said Howard would’ve been justified had he responded with his own weapon. But, the 8-year veteran of the department shared that his instincts and training made him walk away, instead.

“You have to understand you’re dealing with very sick people at times,” he said.

Understanding and patience are two virtues vital to Howard’s work every day. For the last three years, he’s had the rare position of being stationed inside Genesee Health System.

“I work alongside of mental health professionals to make sure people are following their treatment orders,” he said.

It’s that experience and training that helped Howard in a tense moment last Thursday.

He and another deputy were called to Alex Johnson’s home just after 11 a.m. They were supposed to pick up the mentally ill 36-year-old and get him back on his medication.

When Johnson finally opened the door, Howard held it open.

“The door wouldn’t push any further,” Howard said. “And then, in a split second, I saw his arm come out. And I didn’t quite realize what had happened to me and noticed all the blood all over the place.”

Swanson said Johnson slashed Howard with a serrated steak knife.

“It goes from about here to here,” Howard said, describing his injury. “Eighteen stitches, just missed some tendons and arteries. Again, I was lucky that it didn’t hit anything important.”

Swanson said a Flint Police Department K-9 officer who happened to be in the area rushed Howard to Hurley Medical Center. Another Flint police officer caught Johnson shortly after Johnson had escaped out of a back window.

Johnson remains in jail. He's charged with assault with intent to do great bodily harm less than murder and assaulting a police officer causing injury.

“I absolutely had justification to use lethal force in that situation. Immediately we realized that the threat was no longer right in front of us,” Howard explained.

He said he leaned on that patience, understanding and training to help him make the best decision.

“Ultimately, he’s mentally, he’s not stable; and, you know, it just would’ve made a bad situation a lot worse,” Howard said.

Howard expects he’ll get his stitches out Thursday. He hopes to be back to work next week.

A Mid-Michigan judge said this incident underscores the need for mental health care and psychiatric facilities in Michigan.

“For people like this young man, the cycle is going to end up with somebody dying if we don’t find some long term care,” Genesee County Judge Jennie Barkey said.

“Most mentally ill people, as I’ve said a million times before -- bright, talented, good folks. They just need to get their body chemistry right,” she said.

And to do that, Barkey explained they need to take their prescribed medication.

It’s a difficult task for the 10,494 people she has a file for in Genesee County. The judge said many people don’t have to commit a crime to have a file. She will hear testimony from loved ones of people who need to be ordered to take their medication because if they don’t, they’re considered a danger to themselves or the community.

The file for 36-year-old Johnson dates back to 2009.

“The only time he hasn’t had an order for mandatory treatment on him was for the five years he went to prison for a violent crime,” Barkey said. “Which I’m sure, from what I’ve seen in the records, was as a result of his mental illness, in 2010 to 2015.”

Barkey said this cycle can’t continue.

Because, she said, local psych units have to let patients go as soon as they're stable, she wants a proactive approach. Judge Barkey said a new law needs to be passed making long term care available through psychiatric facilities.

“We have tried everything, as his family has,” she said. “We’ve tried every legal tool available to us. Now we need to step up and do something about it.”

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