It’s been a week since the deadly rampage in Isla Vista that claimed the lives of six innocent people near UC Santa Barbara. Another left dead was the assailant.
While mourning the loss of those young lives, I’ve also been contemplating the incident from a strategic and tactical perspective.
Not the tactics of fighting a running gunbattle as a deranged gunman performs drive-by shooting after drive-by shooting in a bucolic coastal town. I’m talking about the strategy for keeping such a thing from happening in the first place — protecting potential victims by quarantining potential violators.
Missing the Point (and the Blunt Instrument)
This week, an article was published that stated that “Lawmakers reacted to the Santa Barbara shooting by announcing plans Tuesday for a bill to create a ‘gun violence restraining order.’
“The bill would establish a system in which concerned relatives, intimate partners or friends can notify police about someone showing a propensity toward violence, so police can investigate and seek a judge's order to seize that person’s firearms and prevent any purchases.”
As a “reaction” to the massacre in Isla Vista, such a law misses the mark completely.
The first three victims last week were killed with edged weapons and/or blunt instruments. Many of the 18 injured were struck by the violator’s car as he drove frantically about the town.
The proposed ‘gun violence restraining order’ addresses those struck by gunfire, but not those slaughtered by the blade and/or blunt instrument. Had such a law existed last week, officers could take the guns of the dangerously mentally ill, but leave him or her in place to use any other available weapon — be it purpose-built or improvised — to kill people.
Lawmakers are essentially saying, “Let’s lock up the guns, not the person whose brain is so severly distorted that they’d use a hammer, a machete, or an automobile to kill for fun, or for revenge, or for no reason at all.”
That’s absolutely preposterous.
Tackling the Heart of the Issue, Head On
The real problem is that the ability and authority of police officers across the country to effect involuntary commitment and/or involuntary treatment is a convoluted mess. Laws vary from state to state and policies vary from agency to agency. To call it a patchwork of incomprehensible inconsistency is way, way too kind.
For example, the legislation governing involuntary civil commitment for psychiatric treatment in California — the Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) Act — was signed into law in 1967. It has been amended on a piecemeal basis many times since its passage five decades ago.
“The California involuntary treatment law is archaic and complex to understand and implement,” Carla Jacobs — a Board Member of the Treatment Advocacy Center — said this week. “It has not kept up to date with scientific knowledge regarding serious mental illness as a neurobiological brain disease.”
What’s scary is that California’s LPS is actually pretty good by comparison to some other states.
PoliceOne Contributor Rick Wall — a retired LAPD captain who created the agency’s procedures for responding to mentally ill subjects — said that California has some of the best laws to assist officers in placing someone on an involuntary hold.
“Once an officer has determined that the subject meets the criteria for an involuntary hold, the law states that the admitting facility has to accept the subject. That is not to say that they will keep the person as it generally becomes a question of resources or beds and the ability to house the patients.”
Remember, under LPS, police officers do not have the power to involuntarily commit someone. They may only detain, assess probable cause, and transport to a designated treatment facility (usually a hospital) where the subject may be temporarily confined. The medical professional — typically a physician — makes the determination as to what happens next. Options range from a 72-hour hold, to simply releasing the individual back into society — essentially free on their own recognizance.
“Some 26 California counties have no psychiatric beds whatsoever for adults,” Jacobs interjected. “When there is no room at the inn, an informal ground-level gate-keeping occurs.”
Jacobs explained there is a common belief that danger has to be imminent — active and vocal threats. “It does not have to be. It never had to be.”
One amendment to LPS (WIC 5150.05, passed in 2002 under AB 1424) addresses the issue of imminent deadly threat, allowing authorized cops to assess probable cause and temporary confinement of an individual based on “the historical course of the person’s mental disorder” including family input.
Wall explained, “Many suicidal subjects can maintain their composure or ‘present well’ during their encounter with the police. Family members or psychologists may say that ‘they’re a danger’ and the officers say, ‘I don't see it.’ This section [WIC 5150.05] allows the officers to use the opinions of the doctor and the past history as described by the family to establish the pattern of conduct that meets the criteria for the hold.”
This assumes, however, that such historical information is made available to those officers at the time they’ve got to make such a determination. That’s kind of a big — and an unpredictable — “IF.”
Realizing the Realities, Rethinking Our Priorities
Should we allow individuals who are well known to be dangerously, violently, mentally ill to possess firearms? Absolutely not. But we also cannot allow them access to the myriad other killing tools readily at their disposal in the kitchen drawer, tool shed, or sporting goods store.
The problem is not under-regulation of things — it is insufficient treatment of people.
“The lack of mental health facilities is the true problem,” Wall said. “Recently, Vice President Biden announced $100 million to assist states with the treatment of mentally ill offenders. That comes to $2 million per state. To put it in context, the California State Mental Hospital System budget is one billion dollars.”
Of the 3,800 patients in the California State Mental Hospital System, Wall said that some 90 percent are in jail for crimes that they committed while mentally ill, or were found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“That leaves approximately 350 beds in the state system for the entire population of California. So the problem is not whether there is a system in place, but if there is a bed for the patient.”
“California fails miserably in caring for its most seriously mentally ill citizens. We’ve closed our hospital beds helter-skelter. Our jails are teaming with inmates whose crimes stemmed from their mental illness because they did not receive adequate treatment preventatively in the community…The entire LPS Act must be reformed,” Jacobs declared.
When asked if there is any other state she might consider an “ideal model” to follow, Jacobs’ reply was as chilling as it was brief.