The Editor's Back Fence

New: How Could Deaths Have Been Prevented?

Becky O'Malley
Tuesday June 03, 2014 - 01:59:00 PM

A few words about the tragic killings in Santa Barbara:

First, all the usual exhortations about the senseless availability of weapons with no other purpose than mass killing of humans apply here. The accused killer was able to do more damage faster because of the kind of guns he was able to buy, but let’s not forget that three of the victims were stabbed to death.

Then, there’s the question of why a variety of concerned observers, including family members, could not stop someone who was obviously mentally ill, suicidal if not homicidal as well, in time to prevent a tragedy.

On this site we’ve hosted an excellent pertinent discussion between regular columnists Ralph Stone and Jack Bragen about the advisability of laws requiring involuntary treatment, the “Laura’s Law” category. There are two points which I think were not fully addressed in their thoughtful essays, however.  

First, it’s one thing to require treatment in certain circumstances, but this presupposes readily available and effective mental health services. In my own experience with trying to help people in emotional distress, even some quite willing to seek help, there’s a serious shortage of resources. A class action lawsuit was filed in October against Kaiser Health Foundation over mental health care wait times, and there are many similar complaints against other health care providers. So even if Laura’s Law or something similar were enacted, there’s no guarantee that persons detained would actually be treated. In this case, family members had been trying to find appropriate treatment for the disturbed young man, but hadn’t found anyone who could help. 

Second, the widespread practice of using law enforcement personnel to handle mental health crises doesn’t work much of the time, and it failed this time. The media is full of stories of disturbed people, both dangerous and harmless, who died during inept police attempts to deal with their problems. 

On NPR this week, I heard about a mentally ill veteran who was shot and killed by two police officers in Lodi. Berkeley’s Kayla Moore, who died as police struggled to subdue her, is the most obvious example, one of many who have died after presumably well-intended peace officers were called to the scene by family and friends.  

In the Santa Barbara case, a family request for a welfare check produced seven armed sheriffs who incorrectly decided that the young man was no danger to himself or others, a tragic error in judgment. It’s one thing to have armed officers as a safety backup, but the principal analysis and handling of a suspected mental health crisis situation should be done by a qualified mental health professional.