Law Enforcement and Mental Illness: Not What They're Meant For

With each terrible tragedy we see replayed over and over, there are additional variations on the theme. In the most recent of these killings, the glaring issue is not a college campus missing the signs, a workplace not acting on "red flags" or a mental health professional believing confidentiality restricts them from actively intervening. It is about law enforcement response and the need for further training and education as well as a revision of the laws which literally tie their hands. The police that did investigate the suspicious behavior of the attacker at UCSB did their job, but their job meant responding to the request, appearing at the home of the killer, questioning him as required by protocol, then leaving because they found no signs of him being a danger to himself and/or others. We see in this instance that the parents and police did follow the right steps, but it also exposed the faults in the system that resulted in several people losing their lives.

In the aftermath of these tragedies comes the public outcry, relentless media attention, editorials and op eds and certainly much discussion within our homes. Then the response stops dead, literally. With no further outcry, outpouring, changes or action. It is once again, let's wait until the next one and there is always a next one. In this most recent horror, outdated laws, designed to protect individuals from abuses in the mental health and legal systems, must be revised. Here there were proactive prevention measures taken and recognition of "red flags" and concern. So those issues from before, as we have learned over and over, were not in play.

When a report is called in on an individual of concern law enforcement need to be allowed to gather a more detailed history on the suspect to better understand the situation and the person. The history, information from family members and staying longer at the scene can prompt questions that can lead to a more in-depth search. The clues to the puzzle might be right in front of us, but if we glance too quickly we can miss it. I understand firsthand the importance of doing a thorough investigation because it works in our private practice. We have conducted numerous psychiatric interventions for a number of people who were reported by their families and loved ones who saw the behavioral changes that led to people getting the appropriate treatment. These interventions and treatments wouldn't be possible without loved ones coming to us and telling us the problems or witnessing the strange behavior and allowing us to understand signs from the present and past. All of this requires a serious change in existing laws and comprehensive and ongoing education and training.

I cannot stress enough the importance of staying longer, gathering more information and really utilizing the clues that are given, because often enough these results show there is someone in need of mental health treatment. While we cannot change everything overnight, we can change the procedure in law enforcement that can ultimately help an individual be treated instead of a national tragedy.