It’s been nearly five years since Katherine Decker’s son was shot to death by a suicidal man during a routine police call in East San Jose. Now, Decker is joining a political fight with Silicon Valley lawmakers and advocates to push for a controversial law that allows authorities to order psychiatric treatment for people with serious mental illness.
“The night he was killed, I had a house full of politicians, and I said, ‘I’m on a mission, it’s got to stop,’” Decker said. “How many more people have to die because a mentally ill person is not getting treatment? This mental health system has to get fixed.”
Decker’s son, San Jose Police officer Michael Johnson, was shot and killed while on duty in March 2015 by a man with a history of mental illness. The man exited his apartment onto a second-floor balcony and fired multiple rounds, killing Johnson.
Mental illness hits close to home for Decker. Growing up, she helped her stepfather find successful mental health treatment in Stockton, became a nurse at 17 and is now a Calaveras County behavioral health nurse.
But the 63-year-old’s latest effort to fix the system is advocating for the adoption of Laura’s Law in Santa Clara County. Decker signed a letter sent to the Board of Supervisors from local lawmakers and community leaders late last year.
“As community leaders, we recognize that Santa Clara County has a mental health crisis,” the letter read. “Of the homeless in our county, 42 percent reported mental illness, yet current efforts in the county to address this issue are tragically lacking. It is imperative that we consider the benefits of Laura’s Law and strengthened conservatorship in Santa Clara County.”
If approved locally, Laura’s Law would allow a court to order assisted outpatient treatment services for a specific group of people who are mentally unstable or refuse treatment, have been hospitalized or incarcerated because of their mental illness or have tried or threatened to harm themselves or others.
The California Legislature passed Laura’s Law in 2002, but counties must opt in and authorize the law’s application. Bay Area counties that have already adopted Laura’s Law include Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo and San Francisco.
This isn’t the first time Decker has gotten politically involved in mental health reform. She shared her testimony on the Assembly floor just months after her son’s death, supporting Senate Bills 11 and 29, which state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, introduced and which advocated for continued mental health training for officers.
San Jose Councilmember and vocal Laura’s Law proponent Johnny Khamis said he started researching this legislation after Decker’s son died almost five years ago.
“When I found out that he died, she said to me, ‘Can we do something about this?’ I promised her I would, and that’s what I did,” Khamis said. “The fact that she’s an expert — a nurse who deals with the mentally ill — I think it gives credence to the acceptability by professionals in the medical arena. And second, I know she knows that this would not have helped her son … but if we can help others, her whole goal is to help people in general.”
He’s right — Decker doesn’t think Laura’s Law would have saved her son’s life, given that the shooter would not have met the necessary requirements for this type of assisted outpatient treatment. She does, however, think the law should be part of a larger solution, contributing to a “village” of help.
“I do truly believe if that’s going to help them, go for it. I use the motto: ‘We are your village.’ All of us helping you out are your village,” she said. “I think it is necessary because if they’re not forced into something, they’re not going to do it.”
Decker sees gaps of access and treatment especially for vulnerable populations, such as homeless residents, if they don’t know about available programs, can’t wait for slow health care approval processes or aren’t taken seriously.
But some lawmakers, including Supervisors Joe Simitian and Susan Ellenberg, remain hesitant. They want to ensure focus is first placed on increasing existing county resources before any additional law is approved, especially because some homeless advocates are concerned the legislation would diminish people’s civil rights and trust in the health care system.
Before voting on enacting Laura’s Law in the county, the Board of Supervisors will hear another report Jan. 28 on mental health services and resources already available for support. The lawmakers also requested a detailed plan of how the law would be implemented physically, given the intended population’s lack of stable shelter or support.