On Tuesday night’s O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel, we discussed the involuntary psychiatric commitment of one of the victims of the recent Arizona shooting rampage. After being shot in the leg, treated, and released, he threatened the leadership of the Tea Party in Arizona and called for attacks on several prominent Republicans, apparently blaming them for inciting the man who shot him (there’s no evidence that the shooter was motivated by Tea Party or Republican politics, but some local and national media outlets and the local sheriff irresponsibly jumped to that conclusion in the immediate aftermath of the rampage because the primary target, the congresswoman, is a Democrat).
Our first topic of discussion on The O’Reilly Factor was the public policy on involuntary commitment. Basically, in every state, if a law enforcement officer or health care professional reasonably believes that a person poses a danger to him/herself or another person or the public at large, the person can be held involuntarily on a temporary basis, generally no more than 72 hours. If the threat is believed to be ongoing at the 72-hour mark, the person generally must be brought before a judge and is entitled to be represented by counsel (at public expense if necessary). If the judge adjudicates the person to be an ongoing threat, the duration of the involuntary commitment can be extended with periodic judicial review. The goal is to balance the person’s individual liberty interest against the state’s interest in protecting its citizens from harm, and this case is probably an instance in which it worked as intended. It sounds like this is a guy who doesn’t have a history of violence or mental illness, is suffering from an acute stress reaction, has a deep anti-Tea Party, anti-Republican ideology, and was looking for someone to blame indirectly since the person directly responsible, the shooter, is out of reach. It’s kind of like a guy whose wife is killed by a drunk driver, and the drunk driver dies also, and the distraught, angry husband, wanting desperately to lash out at someone, threatens to kill the president of the company that made the beer that the drunk driver drank. The cops could’ve dealt with this guy in a strictly punitive way, charging him with felony criminal threats and locking him up in jail alongside the shooter. Instead, it looks like they tried to deal with him in a more compassionate way, charging him with misdemeanors and giving him a few days to cool off and regain his rationality in a hospital setting. Apparently, it worked — he’s reportedly already saying that he appreciates the wrongfulness of what he said and that he’s sorry, so I don’t expect his involuntary commitment to be extended.
Since the 1960’s, the pendulum has swung all across the country in the direction of prioritizing such individuals’ personal liberty over the safety of the public. Known as “deinstitutionalization,” the policy shift has been decidedly toward trying to treat mental illness on an outpatient basis using community mental health centers rather than inpatient hospitals. In some ways, I think we’ve actually let the pendulum swing too far. If you’re a regular reader/viewer, you know how often I point out that a killer showed all kinds of warning signs of dangerousness and nobody did anything. In fact, the shooter in the Arizona rampage will probably prove to be a prime example. You may recall that well before the tragic shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, that shooter had come before a judge with clear evidence of dangerousness to himself, but the judge, probably well-intentioned and reluctant to “label” the young man for life, refused to adjudicate him as mentally incompetent and commit him to involuntary treatment, accepting instead his promise to seek treatment voluntarily. Well, the shooter-to-be did check himself into treatment and then promptly checked himself out, which meant that when he later went to buy a gun to shoot up the campus, nothing showed up in his legal history that would’ve prohibited the transaction, at least with a retail gun dealer. So, while the system may have worked well in the case of this victim-turned-threatener in Arizona, in my opinion, we still need to rethink how difficult we want to make it and how much latitude we want to give law enforcement officers and judges to hold someone who’s exhibited a propensity to become violent, especially toward others.
Our second topic of discussion on the Factor was whether the media and the sheriff influenced this guy to blame and lash out at Tea Party members and Republicans. As we discussed on the Factor when abortion doctor George Tiller was killed here in Kansas back in 2009, and supporters of Tiller blamed prominent critics like O’Reilly and myself for supposedly inciting the anti-abortion zealot who pulled the trigger, mentally-unstable ideological zealots, much like delusional psychotics, are tough to talk into much or out of much even by people who know them well, let alone strangers in the media. Selected strangers on TV might lend some validation to those people’s ideologies, but I don’t really think Tea Party or Republican politicians or pundits caused the Arizona shooter to do what he did, nor do I think that the media or the sheriff caused this victim to then threaten those people. I think both guys, shooter and victim, probably acted more out of their own mental instabilities and belief systems rather than in response to things they heard and saw in the media. Having said that, I do want to make particular note, however, of the profound stupidity of this sheriff down there — it’s one thing for media pundits to speculate publicly about the causation of a tragedy, but when a law-enforcement official accuses specific organizations or individuals of causing the tragedy, with no factual basis whatsoever, it rises to a whole other, higher, level of irresponsibility in my opinion. The sheriff should be removed from office.
Briefly, in other Lawpsyc news:
There was a school shooting in the LA area in which two students were wounded, one critically, but it was apparently “accidental,” i.e. the gun was in a student’s backpack and discharged when the backpack was dropped on a hard surface. Of course this doesn’t absolve the student who brought the gun to school of responsibility for the damage caused by his illegal weapon, but it’s apparently not an intentional rampage case like the one we saw recently in Omaha, Nebraska.
And in an incident that the FBI is calling “domestic terrorism” a backpack with an improvised explosive device in it was found on Monday along the route of a parade celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Spokane, Washington. The search for the person(s) who left it there is ongoing.
In another sad case of some idiot parents’ pet severely injuring a child, a pet ferret, left alone with a newborn baby, bit seven fingers off of the baby’s hands in a rural area just outside of Kansas City. The “parents” should be charged with child abuse/neglect, and a full custody evaluation should be performed by a qualified forensic psychologist before that or any other child is allowed to be in their care again, if ever.
And finally, a new study estimates that one in 16 surgeons in the U.S. has experienced suicidal ideation but far fewer have sought help for fear of losing their medical licenses. As someone who frequently assesses the mental fitness for duty of medical and other professionals, I’m not surprised by these findings but would encourage physicians to take advantage of the physicians’ health/assistance programs offered in most states, through which help is often available confidentially so long as a patient isn’t endangered — if you’re impaired, for any reason, whether it be suicidal depression, substance abuse, physical illness, or something else, you have an ethical duty to take yourself out of the patient-care role until such time as you’re fit to practice again, and if someone else ends up having to sideline you, it may be a lot harder for you to get back in the game.