Once again, we are discussing mass shootings, and the arguments for solutions have retreated to their political talking points. Perhaps a reboot is in order, and we might consider looking at the local level of governmental responses to examine a different approach. Firearms are the means, and mental illness appears to be the common factor.
America’s perennial safest city, (according to the FBI, cities with populations exceeding 100,000) the City of Irvine, California, has approached this issue from the mental illness position. Although it wasn’t a mass shooting that placed them into the national discussion, it was the killing of multiple victims by a schizophrenic supermarket employee wielding a samurai sword in 2003 that brought mental illness to the forefront. As a police commander I was assigned to assist in the internal affairs investigation into the officer involved shooting that ended the killer’s rampage.
Approximately five years ago, the Irvine Police Department established a Mental Health Unit consisting of two police officers paired with a County of Orange clinician to follow up on those calls for service that require additional attention within the mental health discipline. Of particular concern were individuals experiencing significant mental distress, who did not exhibit symptoms rendering them an immediate danger to themselves or others, but had access to firearms.
The landmark California Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, signed into law in 1967, and taking full effect in 1972, set the standard for the nation on involuntary mental health commitments. Codified under Welfare and Institutions section 5150, the law enables a peace officer or mental health professional to take an individual into custody under a mental health commitment for 72 hours providing that the person is a danger to self, others, or gravely disabled. That commitment also requires that firearms possessed by that individual be booked for safekeeping by the law enforcement agency.
The challenge for patrol officers, has been to witness the behavior justifying an involuntary commitment. One of the advantages of the Mental Health Unit, has been its capability, following a referral from patrol officers, to interview witnesses, gather information from multiple sources, and prepare necessary documentation to present to a judge for the issuance of a firearms restraining order. In addition, when confidentiality issues arise from private healthcare plans, the Mental Health Unit has successfully obtained waivers from clinicians for medical records to assist in the judicial decision making process.
Bolstering support for the unit has been a study by the U.S. Secret Service of the 28 mass attacks during 2017.
Nearly two-thirds (64%) had experienced mental health symptoms prior to their attacks
Seventy-five percent made statements or comments alarming others who observed them
Twenty-five percent had been hospitalized
It is apparent that there were persons familiar with these attackers, and were concerned regarding their instability.
Prevention is the key; and departments that establish units capable of conducting threat assessments can make informed decisions for intervention and ultimately promote a safer environment for their residents, businesses, and the public at large.