Believe it or not, here are two stories originating right here in my backyard, Lawrence, Kansas, one of which has already made national headlines, and one of which probably should:
First, the one that’s already gone national. Two “parents” are in police custody and their children are in protective custody after a good Samaritan spotted two of the children bound with duct tape in a Wal-Mart parking lot while the parents apparently went into the store. The parents’ explanation? They were supposedly traveling cross-country to escape “demons,” made an unscheduled stop in Lawrence due to car trouble, and bound the children with the duct tape out of fear that the children had become “possessed” by the pursuing demons. Hmmmm.
Well, compared to the Colorado movie theater shooter, these people’s “insanity” story holds slightly more water — at least they apparently didn’t do much to conceal their abuse of the children, which is their best evidence so far that they actually believed what they were doing was right. On the other hand, that kind of paranoid delusional system shared by two people, or “folie a deux,” is infinitesimally rare, so it’s highly likely that at least one parent was conscious of the abuse and participated in it nevertheless. To me though, this sounds a lot more like a couple of abusive “parents” who got fed up with a couple of perhaps-rambunctious kids on a long road trip and resorted to some abusive “discipline.” (And even if you were a parent who could imagine the thought of duct taping your kids’ mouths on a long car ride, the key difference here would be that you’d never actually do it!)
Now, the story that hasn’t yet gone national but probably should. A few days ago, shots reportedly rang out at the home of the former (retired) Chief of the Lawrence Police Department. In a 9-1-1 call, a woman on the scene reportedly told a dispatcher that the former Chief was having a “reaction to medication” and was firing a gun inside of the house (whether all of the shots were actually confined to the house appears to still be in some dispute). Police responding to the scene reportedly observed the woman exiting the home, whereupon they secured the scene, talked the former Chief into surrendering, and transported him to the local hospital (where he reportedly remained only briefly).
Now first of all, I’ll need a lot more details before I’ll ever be convinced that this entire story can be chalked up to a “reaction to medication.” Yes, there are medications that can make people paranoid (the former Chief reportedly told police that he believed his home was being invaded by kidnappers), but if a medication alone truly made a guy who’s normally completely psychologically stable shoot up his home, it’ll be a first in my experience. Who knows, maybe the guy has a brain tumor, maybe he’s having some psychotic dementia, maybe he has engaged in non-lethal domestic violence in the past and the influence of a substance (or combination of substances) kicked it up a notch, or maybe something else is in play.
But that’s not the reason why I think it’s a national story — this is: The former Chief is facing no charges, none, not even “discharging a firearm within the city limits.” Why? The current Chief reportedly explained that there’s not enough evidence to establish the former Chief’s conscious intent to fire the weapon(s) involved, essentially describing the discharge as what I sometimes call an “accident of illness.” Okay, but whether it really ought to be deemed such an accident is an open factual and legal question as I see it. I mean, it doesn’t sound like the guy simply dropped a gun on the ground and it discharged — multiple times — so it seems a bit hasty to conclude that what happened is the functional equivalent thereof.
I don’t think this is just a case of a former police chief receiving preferential treatment, either. This sort of thing happens all too often across the U.S.A., and it’s a near-perfect illustration of the point that I made on HLN’s Evening Express on Tuesday about how we (as a society) often squander opportunities to prevent future violence by pursuing a supposedly-“compassionate” policy of “catch and release” in cases like this. Without a criminal charge, we have no way to ensure that this guy is getting psychiatric care, that he’s getting his medication needs taken care of, that he doesn’t have access to guns anymore — we don’t even have a way to be sure of where he is. And, because he’s not a criminal defendant, the Police Department isn’t even discussing any of that, citing the former Chief’s “privacy.” So, people who live on his street can’t really know at this point whether/when bullets are likely to come flying randomly from his house while their kids are playing outside. That’s not right.
In a case involving a person who’s potentially violently unstable, we ought to charge the person. That’s how we get the person in front of a criminal court judge who has the power to order the person held without bail in jail (with or without treatment), remanded to the custody of a treatment facility, or released with conditions (like surrendering his firearms and concealed-carry permit and participating in intensive outpatient treatment) and monitoring (subjecting him to re-arrest upon violation of any condition). If the defendant wants to plead temporary-insanity, fine — if a judge or jury eventually buys it, then the charge(s) will ultimately be dismissed — but in the meantime, we have the ability to exert some control over him (and a charge can even be dismissed or diverted prior to trial if the prosecutor becomes convinced that the evidence doesn’t support a conviction).
And with regard to his privacy, in my opinion, he gave some of that up when he shot up his house in a residential neighborhood, temporarily insane or not. As I see it, the interests of his neighbors in the safety of their neighborhood trump his privacy interests at this point. (And yes, bullets could theoretically come flying from anyone’s house at any time, but it’s neither constitutional nor practical to be looking for threats in every house — the point is that once someone has done something, something beyond merely acting weird, something dangerous to the public, we ought to be more interested in protecting the public, which includes informing the public, than in protecting that individual’s privacy, reputation, record, etc.).
So, who says nothing happens in Kansas?
(P.S. We’re awaiting a ruling on yet another defense motion for a mistrial following yet another open-court reference by the prosecution to suppressed evidence in the Drew Peterson trial. While I’ll still be surprised if the trial is scrapped tomorrow, this has further eroded my confidence in the prosecution’s ability to see this trial through to a conviction. Stay tuned.)